Rock the KasbahReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/23/15 10:08:27
Bill Murray is, of course, one of the most universally beloved movie stars of our age and while there are any number of explanations for this--his presence in some of the most celebrated comedies of his time, his surprisingly deft turn towards more dramatic fare in films such as "Lost in Translation" and his various excursions with Wes Anderson, the Zen-like manner in which he seems to comport himself both on and off the screen in a way that suggests that the world is his playground and he is on permanent recess--one of the reasons why I think that he has continued to grow and thrive in the popular consciousness while others of his ilk have gone on to death (creative or otherwise), irrelevancy or direct-to-video projects involving talking animals (his at least played in theaters) has been his cheerful willingness to pop up unannounced for a few minutes in films in which other people are the nominal stars. Starting with "Tootsie," in which he took on a small supporting role for which he reportedly improvised most of his dialogue, refused any billing for his efforts and wound up stealing the entire thing anyway (including a moment that I firmly believe is the single funniest line reading I have ever heard), he has carved out an entire second career for himself by randomly turning up unannounced in films in small parts that are theoretically irrelevant to the proceedings as a whole but which more often than not turn out to be the highlights of those enterprises. (You have your favorites in this regard--mine would include his turns in "Little Shop of Horrors," "Ed Wood" and "Wild Things.")In his latest film, "Rock the Kazbah," he is again playing a character who is essentially secondary to the narrative surrounding him and if this role was of a secondary nature to the main thrust of the story, his presence might have come as a relief. Alas, his character here is the central focus of the entire film even though it quickly becomes apparent that his character should be a supporting player in the more intriguing narrative that has been inexplicably shifted to the side and given precious little screen time to exist. The result is a film that clearly came to a crossroads in regards to what story it wanted to tell and ended up choosing incorrectly. It isn't completely without merit, I suppose, but I came away from it frustrated not just because it didn't work on its own terms but because it almost certainly would have been better if those involved had taken the more interesting, though arguably less commercial, narrative path.
Murray plays Richie Lanz, a music manager who claims to have been one of the greats back in the day but who now is more along the lines of the rock version of Broadway Danny Rose--whatever talented acts he may have signed back in the day have long since departed and the only ones left are those deluded enough to willingly overlook his seedy motel offices and sign over checks to him to allegedly pay for outfits, studio time and diets. Fortune briefly smiles on him when he books his barely-loyal secretary, Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel), to sing cover tunes in an out-of-the-way bar and her way with Meredith Brooks' "Bitch" so impresses a military man in attendance that offers her the job of opening for Demi Lovato on a USO tour of Afghanistan and other neighboring areas of conflict. Alas, spending 20 hours on a plane before landing smack dab in the middle of a war zone is not exactly the kind of rock and roll lifestyle Ronnie envisioned for herself and not even a pep talk from Richie involving Stevie Nicks is enough to placate her. Sure enough, when it comes time for the gig, Richie finds that she has not only disappeared into the night with his passport and all of his money, he also now owes a thousand dollars to the crazed contractor (Bruce Willis) that helped spirit her away.
At the end of his rope, Richie agrees to help deliver a shipment of ammunition for a couple of American arms dealers (Danny McBride and Scott Caan) to a village whose comparatively benign leader (Fahim Fazli) is under imminent threat of attack from a more conventionally despotic rival. While staying at the leader's home for the night, Richie literally stumbles across Salima (Leem Lubany), a young woman with an extraordinary singing voice, and hits upon a plan to get her a spot on "Afghan Star," the local version of "American Idol," where her sheer talent is almost certain to win. Alas, women in Salima's culture are not supposed to sing at all and even if her father were to allow her to compete--which he doesn't--there is the fact that no female has ever competed on the show before. Nevertheless, Richie, along with the help of an expatriate hooker (Kate Hudson), puts his talents to work to get Salima on the show, overcome the resistance of both her country in general and her father in particular, save the latter from a deadly betrayal and, perhaps most importantly, learn to become a better person along the way.
As you can tell from the above description, there are two wildly different stories fighting for dominance at the heart of "Rock the Kazbah"--one tells the story of a young woman in an oppressive milieu who is inspired to take a stand for herself in order to celebrate the gift that she has been blessed with no matter what the cost and illustrates how even the shabbiest scraps of popular culture can inspire people in unusual and powerful ways while the other follows a fish out of water who learns to care while stumbling around in an environment utterly alien to him. I don't know about you but I would take the former in a heartbeat because it just sounds inherently more interesting and, done properly, could pull off the trick of telling a story that has both a powerful social consciousness and an easily understandable dramatic/emotional hook to lure viewers in. Hell, if you wanted to have the goofball American promoter character, you could bring him in later in the proceedings and make him a supporting player in the story that adds a few bits of welcome comedic relief without ever stealing focus from the main narrative--you know, the sort of thing that Bill Murray has done so well throughout his career.
For all I know, the film (which, while not an official remake per se, takes its inspiration from the 2010 documentary "Afghan Star," which followed a couple of young women who risked their lives to compete on that real-life program) may have started out along those lines but at some point, the decision was made to focus on the manager character instead and this proves to be a fatal mistake. Now, instead of centering on Salima and her struggles to reconcile her faith with the gift that she wants to share with the world, her ability to sing is not even discovered until the film is nearly halfway through because it is too busy following around Richie and his rambling and ultimately pointless misadventures to get around to her. Even after her character is finally established, she is still essentially a side character because instead of examining the sheer shock that her bold act to take to the airwaves to sing must have instilled throughout all of Afghanistan, her actions seem to only be important in the sense that they allow Richie to turn his life around at long last. Hell, I think that in terms of screen time and dramatic importance, the story of the aforementioned hooker is given more prominence and weight than Salima's and that is just wrong.
Beyond that, "Rock the Kazbah" is a remarkably sloppy movie in many ways. It was directed by Barry Levinson, a man who has made some wonderful films ("Diner," "Tin Men," "Wag the Dog"), some awful ones ("Sleepers," "Sphere," "Envy" and this year's "The Humbling") and at least one that everyone thinks is awful but which is actually kind of wonderful in a weird ways ("Toys"--yes, "Toys"). Admittedly, his filmography is more than a little uneven but even his worst films have demonstrated a level of basic screen craft that is oftentimes simply missing here. There are several points, in fact, where one gets the sense that entire scenes are simply missing--either as the result of last-minute deletions or screenwriter Mitch Glazer having failed to write them in the first place--and their absence can be felt throughout as the narrative lurches from one incident to the next with virtually no transitions. (After establishing the Bruce Willis character as a nut who is willing to kill Richie over a thousand bucks in his first scene, he then inexplicably turns up later on as his de facto bodyguard with nary a hint of explanation.) Even the most basic forms of screen craft are too often lacking here--the cinematography is drably uninspired and the ADR is so poorly executed at certain points that one can inadvertently gain a new appreciation for that often overlooked craft by observing just how things can go off the rails when it is done improperly.Still, "Rock the Kazbah" have its moments here and there and they are almost entirely due to the presence of Bill Murray and his ability to rescue lame material with the sheer force of his personality. Richie is his latest variation of a character type that he has been playing throughout his entire career--the small-time schmuck on the fringes of show biz--and while this iteration will not play a large part in his eventual AFI highlight reel, he can still milk it for a few laughs, most notably in a hilarious early scene in which he tries to convince a talentless would-be singer to follow her dreams (and, more importantly, fork over a check) by comparing her to a pearl in an oyster, though not in the manner that anyone might normally expect to hear. He scores other laughs here and there but even in those moments, there is the sense that he is simply going through the motions rather than really investing himself into the proceedings. Maybe he was distracted by thoughts of how much better the film might have been if the right character had been at its center and his had been moved to the margins where it rightly belongs.
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