Bill Murray is asleep. Or at least he appears to be sleeping when we first meet his character, the down and out music manager Richie Lanz, in "Rock the Kasbah."
Holed up in a dingy San Fernando Valley motel room, he's at least half-listening to the shrill sounds of a woman singing Maroon 5 and deciding whether or not to sign her. He does, and promptly collects a $1200 fee from his newest client. His other client, Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel), who also seems to double as his assistant, scolds him for playing this game and abusing the hopes – and checkbooks – of gullible dreamers. Then he takes Ronnie out to a dive bar and has her sing some cover songs.
This is Richie. Swindling some, going to bat for others, and never really getting anywhere in the process.
It's an inauspicious, and grating, start to the film from "Scrooged" writer Mitch Glazer and "Diner" and "Good Morning, Vietnam" director Barry Levinson. Thankfully, Murray wakes up, and the movie gets a little better, but in sum, "Rock the Kasbah" is a strange mishmash of snark, sincerity, slapstick, and glib cultural appropriation that's redeemed in part only by the eternal charisma of Murray.
Ronnie doesn't get discovered at the bar, per se, but a guy convinces Richie to take her to Afghanistan to play for the troops. From there, the movie suddenly becomes a mad-cap series of increasingly disparate events as Richie struts and jokes his way through a foreign land after Ronnie absconds with his money and passport.
Within a day of discovering that he's stranded in Kabul for a few weeks, he's inexplicably cruising the city's dangerous streets in a white convertible with some fedora-wearing war profiteers (Danny McBride, Scott Caan). Soon enough, he's riding through the desert with Bruce Willis's short-fused mercenary soldier and discussing that time he dated Danielle Steele while on his way to negotiate a weapons sale with the leaders of a tiny village.
The movie is half over before Richie finally meets Salima (Leem Lubany), a Pashtun girl with a voice to kill and a penchant for Cat Stevens. He hears her singing "Trouble" and decides that getting this girl on "Afghan Star" is his new purpose in life, even though it might mean death for both himself and Salima.
It's here that "Rock the Kashbah"'s tone becomes a real problem. The movie wants to be both glib and emotionally resonant, but it can't seem to figure out what the stakes are – even as people are getting shot.
When Richie's with the war profiteers and Willis's Bombay Brian, the outlandish caricatures almost work, making the movie feel like a loopy, exaggerated fever-dream with no actual political stance. But everything goes awry once the focus shifts to Salima and her determination to defy her family, village, and traditions to pursue her passion of singing on a reality television show.
This story is probably about the wrong character. Richie is a sideshow. Salima is the heart. Here, she's reduced to an exotic means of redemption for a character we barely care about.
Levinson and Glazer try to weave "Rock the Kasbah" into a complex tapestry of satire and sincerity and come up instead with a big knotted mess. And it's always a bad sign when one of Murray's best moments is completely unrelated to the movie at hand and plays only while the credits are rolling.