Quick! Name the movie where Bill Murray plays a proudly shabby dude who acts like a prick for an hour and then, for reasons of narrative convention rather than character-based truth, shambles toward either heroism or some vague be-nicer enlightenment.
Maybe a tougher challenge would be to name the Bill Murray movie where that doesn't happen: Zombieland? That one where he played FDR as our nation's most twinkling hand-job enthusiast? Whether his sleepy-eyed hero is saving New York (Ghostbusters 1 and 2), his platoon (Stripes) or something more like his own threadbare soul (Scrooged, Groundhog Day, almost all of his whiskery late-career indies), Murray movies mostly hold to the template whether they're playing in the cineplex or the art house. In the final moments of last year's miserable St. Vincent, his cantankerous bastard drunk is actually hauled onstage at an elementary school assembly and treated by local parents to a standing ovation, all just for being himself — a guy who in real life you would detest.
The wearying thing about this? In those scenes where he's a prick, Murray can still be an unsavory delight. He's quite funny as St. Vincent's cartoon monster, right up until the movie starts insisting that we have to believe in this guy, too, just the way an Adam Sandler picture would.
But even that doesn't hold true in most of the listless and haphazard Rock the Kasbah. Here, the Murray formula crashes into another tired pattern: Hollywood's insistence on reframing fascinating global stories so that they center on white American dudes of vision. Just as Jon Hamm's sports agent became the hero of the film about the first baseball players from India to sign a professional contract, in Rock the Kasbah Murray plays a bottomed-out tour manager who manages, with Western pluck, to get a female contestant (Leem Lubany) onto Afghan Star, a localized riff on American Idol.
The story is inspired, in some faint way, by Lima Sahar, the Pashtun woman who in 2008 actually accomplished the feat Rock the Kasbah builds toward. But the movie is as interested in her as Murray has been in making Ghostbusters 3. Instead, Kasbah is mostly Murray bumbling through Kabul and the surrounding desert, wrangling an unpromising American singer (Zooey Deschanel), hooking up with a heart-of-gold hooker (Kate Hudson), getting roped into a gun-running deal with a high-strung mercenary (Bruce Willis) and holler-singing “Smoke on the Water” at a dinner in the compound of an Afghan warlord.
Sometimes, Murray's character — a liar named Richie Lanz whom we're supposed to be won over by — behaves like a person, disguising his fear and uncertainty through all-American hustle and dealmaking. His best scene comes during a midnight joyride through Kabul with military contractors and arms dealers, whose leader is played by Danny McBride. Locals with guns stop the American's car and demand to see some papers; Lanz, stoned and freaked, stands up and speaks tense nonsense in an attempt to smooth things over. He fails.
In other scenes, though, he's inscrutable. In that warlord's home, power-chording on a rubab in front of men he believes want to kill him, is he attempting to win them over? To confound them? To score some point against them that only he understands? The film often plays as if everyone making it agreed that some on-set idea was so funny it had to be included, whether or not it suited the story.
Some of those ideas work, in the moment. Willis is funny as an annoyed tough guy who keeps getting talked into bad situations by motormouth Lanz, and Deschanel is excellent in her few scenes as a sloppy karaoke trainwreck. But the story wanders as aimlessly as Lanz seems to. For every moment of desert beauty, or insight into the twilight economies that flourish in a war zone, there's a key scene that appears truncated or even missing. Even when it finally settles on the Afghan Star idea, with Lanz fast-talking the show's producers into risking their lives by letting this woman he's found sing on TV, Rock the Kasbah almost immediately hurries on to something else. There's some double-cross involving that arms sale; there's a showdown between competing bands of armed Afghans; there's the baffling sense that Hudson's wised-up sex worker is for some reason falling for Lanz. This surplus of plot is at odds with the talents of director Barry Levinson and star Murray: Both are interested in hanging out, in chasing a moment, rather than a rigorous depiction of the social, political and religious drama surrounding Sahar's courageous performances or the show's decision to air them.
Lubany, as the willful young singer, twice handles dazzling renditions of Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens songs, broadcast on the movie's version of Afghan Star in English for some reason. I wish there were more to say about the actress's performance, but she's hardly in the movie, even though she's the one who makes the most daring decisions. Lubany is cast here, really, as Zuzu's petals, as the impetus to get this schlub to act, to feel, to deal.
In real life, the first woman on Afghan Star made it to air the same way anyone else did: She showed up and she auditioned. In Rock the Kasbah, an American needing redemption — one who is indifferent to the Afghan people or their culture — drives her to Kabul in his trunk. The movie is under the presumption that he, not the Afghan Star producers, will make the money if she's a success, but the act is still depicted as selfless. It takes a community of nations to give our boomer movie heroes the opportunity to prove, through hopeful exploitation, that they're still really good guys.
ROCK THE KASBAH | Directed by Barry Levinson | Written by Mitch Glazer | Open Road Films | Citywide