Saturday, October 24, 2015

Rock the Kasbah (2015)

Directed by: Barry Levinson
Runtime: 1hr 40mins

What the advertising, and indeed the film, focuses on is the fact that this is a comedy starring Bill Murray. Perhaps that's what's likely to sell, but what it should have mentioned is that it's inspired by the 2009 documentary "Afghan Star." The documentary follows four contestants competing in Afghanistan's version of "American Idol." The show serves as a celebration of culture and the freedom of music after the fall of the Taliban who had outlawed singing in 1996.

"Rock the Kasbah" is dedicated to Setara Hussainzada, the brave woman that dared to defy their cultural restrictions by performing without her hijab and dancing with free body movements. She received death threats as the country grew violently angry about her disregard for their customs. What is interesting to think about is the fact that the show itself, and the country's wild enthusiasm for it, are due to the love and celebration of musical freedom. A freedom that had been denied them for years under Taliban rule. Yet in the same instance the majority of the population failed to accept a woman expressing freedom she had never been allowed. Despite its dedication to Setara, "Rock the Kasbah" fails in every respect to do any sort of justice to this story.

Its initial failure is in the fact that it's a comedy. Very little of the film's comedy works and it's not hard to figure out why. The majority of the film takes place in Afghanistan following Murray's Richie Lanz attempting to live up to his own bloated ego. He's the kind of man that introduces himself by saying his full name and pausing as if expecting to get some sort of reaction. Lanz, a has-been music manager, initially goes to Afghanistan with his only real client Ronnie, played by Zooey Deschanel, on a USO tour. Yet the minute she gets on the plane she's desperate to leave and go back home. She resents Lanz for making her do covers rather than performing her own music. Although very little is made of the parallel of Lanz suppressing of his own female talent. It is, however, used as fuel for her eventual theft of his money and passport as she sneaks away to the airport and back to America.

The next sizable portion of the film is devoted to Lanz attempting to figure out a way to leave Afghanistan with no money and no passport. The cast wastefully includes Bruce Willis, Scott Caan, Danny McBride, Zooey Deschanel and Kate Hudson. While Murray does his best to provide an entertaining performance, none of the numerous side character give an admirable performance in return, yet that's due in large part to the slovenly script by Mitch Glazer and uninspiring direction from Barry Levinson.

Before anything of consequence takes place, the film diverts to introduce a fairly purposeless character in Merci (Kate Hudson), an American hooker making money by pleasing American soldiers (and Lanz) during their down time. If the fact that he's penniless and without identification isn't trouble enough, a man called Bombay Brian (Bruce Willis in an incredibly under serving role) frequently drops in on Lanz to remind him that he owes him a thousand US dollars. It's a bit that's completely forgotten without payoff. Willis is an actor with an incredible range. He's capable of headlining a film and delivering comedy or drama. Here he receives second billing, but for what reason I can't say. He simply has nothing to do.

Lanz also has several run-ins with characters played by Scott Caan and Danny McBride, two bumbling, pot smoking Americans there to make money by selling ammunition to the locals. They're clearly written in the hopes that viewers will find them humorous simply because they smoke pot and make light of dangerous situations. Yet similarly to Bruce Willis' character, there just isn't much going on with these characters. Their role is purely to connect Lanz with the village where he will find Salima (Leem Lubany), the character meant to represent Setara Hussainzada. After Lanz makes it to Salima's village, the Caan and McBride characters disappear.

It takes the film a long time to get to the point where the real struggle, the real purpose of the film can finally kick off. And even then, rather than allowing Salima's dramatic tale to become interesting, it's relegated to the background while we watch Bill Murray's character struggle to rise to the occasion and become the manager he never had been. If Glazer and Levinson had, had any sense the priority level of those two storylines would have been reversed. They also fail to explore the relationship between Salima and her father, and the growing tension in Afghanistan over Salima's performance. As it is, the importance of what Salima does is entirely lost and serves only to promote Richie Lanz. As if that weren't enough, the script also fails the rest of its female characters as well. An unforgivable lapse in judgement when doing a story about a woman subverting the norms of this male dominated culture. It's ironic how Glazer and Levinson failed to push any boundaries in the making of this film about pushing boundaries. This film is utter failure of the highest degree.

I've always been a fan of Bill Murray thanks in large part to his roles in independent films like "Lost in Translation" and his many films with Wes Anderson. However the last few years has tested my fandom with unimpressive mainstream star vehicles like "St. Vincent" and this film. His best roles lately have been minor ones in Anderson films. I won't say that he's incapable of leading a film anymore, but his choices lately have left a lot to be desired. There is hope, however, for Murray who is set to reconnect with Sofia Coppola for "A Very Murray Christmas" a comedy/musical they're making for Netflix. The most concerning thing about it is that the writer of "Rock the Kasbah," Mitch Glazer, is credited as a writer on the film. Sofia Coppola and Bill Murray also received writing credits on the film, so hopefully they'll balance out whatever it was that caused this travesty.

As far as "Rock the Kasbah" goes, the trailer seems to posses the only bits of comedy, which is to say that if you didn't find the trailer funny, you won't find the film funny either. And if you did find the trailer funny, consider watching it one more time and skipping the full film.

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