Movie review- Rock The Kasbah is Unfunny and Tedious
Rock the Kasbah is, in a sense, a film that never needed to be made. An end-credit dedication suggests it was inspired by the life of Setara Hussainzada, an Afghan singer who scandalised her Talibanised nation in 2007 when she sang and danced on a Kabul talent-spotting television show. For her efforts, Setara was voted off the show, and had death threats issued against her by the Taliban. She gave up singing and settled down to quiet domesticity. Her life story was then beautifully chronicled in two documentaries by Havana Marking: Afghan Star (2009), and the 2011 follow-up, Silencing the Song. Nothing more needed to be said.
But Hollywood, of course, doesn’t like losers. So, it has conjured up an alternative, happy ending: one in which Salima Khan, a Pashtun girl (who is much like Setara), rebels against Taliban orthodoxy and her own family’s restrictions, and goes on to secure stardom as a singer. But of course, in this neo-imperialist narration, it needs a down-and-out, shamming rock-‘n’-roll manager from California to slum it to Kabul and spot this ‘candle in the bushel’. Talk of the white man’s burden!
That white hipster is Richie Lanz (played by an over-the-hill Bill Murray), who finds himself stranded in Kabul, penniless and passport-less, but redeems himself by seeing Salima Khan through to success. In that enterprise, he is aided by an oddball tag team: Merci (Kate Hudson), a hooker who services Afghan warlords and US servicemen in mercenary fashion; ‘Bombay’ Brian (Bruce Willis playing arguably the dumbest role of his career), a gun-for-hire; and two gun-running profiteers.
It’s hard to understand what director Barry Levinson, who gave us Wag the Dog (that political satire about war as distraction), was thinking of when he began filming this crash-bang of a movie. For an ostensible comedy, Rock the Kasbah is strikingly unfunny, its screenplay humour never rising above frat-boy material. Nor is it a searing critique of Taliban orthodoxy or the horrors of war. Without strong roots, the plotline loses itself in the desert sands of Kandahar.
Bill Murray normally thrives in over-the-top situations like this, but in the absence of a strong screenplay, we are served a cruel reminder of his age-bound limitations. And Bruce Willis should fire his agent for signing him on for this colossally stupid role. Perhaps the film’s only saving grace is the fresh-faced Lebanese actor Leem Lubany, who makes the most of the Salima Khan character.
Rock the Kasbah could easily have been a quirky narrative. But in the end, it never rises above the mediocre. Seldom has so much cinematic talent gone to waste on such an epic scale.