An acclaimed film director, a legendary comic actor, lots of fun rock and pop songs, and a noble story at its core can’t save “Rock the Kasbah” from being one hugely misguided dud. The take-away: For the foreseeable future, filmmakers may want to put a pin in setting movie comedies in war-torn Afghanistan.
No matter, that’s where Richie Lanz (Bill Murray), a has-been, perhaps never-was music promoter, implausibly finds himself on a USO tour with his last-chance client, neurotic lounge singer Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel). But when Ronnie flips out and flees Kabul — stealing Richie’s money and passport in the process — Richie is stuck in the treacherous land until he can be issued new travel papers.
More absurd contrivances, dicey obstacles and dodgy characters factor in (Kate Hudson, Scott Caan, Danny McBride and Bruce Willis play devices here more than actual people) until circumstances lead Richie to lay eyes and ears on Salima (Leem Lubany), a Pashtun songbird with dreams of appearing on “Afghan Star,” a local version of “American Idol.” (She’s loosely based on the first Pashtun woman to sing — with troubling consequences — on the actual “Afghan Star.”)
But religion, family customs and cultural divides, as well as an underground arms deal with deadly tentacles, all conspire in ways both convoluted and true to keep Salima from achieving her goal. Fortunately, she has Richie Lanz on her side.
That Richie is a mellow fellow with an easy showman’s patter serves him well in this contentious environment even if most of the time only he knows what he’s talking about. Richie’s a convincing throwback and a hand-in-glove fit for the endearing Murray. Lubany is strong as the driven Salima, offering lovely renditions of several Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam classics.
But the oddball script by Mitch Glazer (“Scrooged”), as directed by Barry Levinson (“Rain Man,” “Good Morning, Vietnam”), takes so long to bring Richie and Salima together, it deprives us of the kind of fully fleshed dynamic the story so desperately needs.
For the record, this deftly shot and designed movie was filmed mostly in Morocco, with second-unit photography done in Kabul.
“Rock the Kasbah”
MPAA rating: R for language including sexual references, some drug use and brief violence.
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.
Playing: In general release.