Friday, October 23, 2015

Rock the Kasbah: The day the music died

Rock the Kasbah (2015) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for profanity, violence, drug use and sexual candor

By Derrick Bang

Bill Murray has been Hollywood’s magic bullet for a little over than a decade now, ever since delivering such a memorable performance in 2003’s Lost in Translation.

See anything you like? Richie Lanz (Bill Murray) is unsurprisingly awed by his first glimpse
of Merci (Kate Hudson), little realizing that she'll soon become a business partner.
His presence automatically enhances the quality of a given film, no matter how small the role. As a star, he can elevate familiar and otherwise mediocre material (as with, say, St. Vincent); as a supporting or bit player, his scenes are standouts. (Olive Kitteridge and Zombieland come to mind.)

There’s something about Murray’s deadpan expression that speaks volumes, but defies ready description. World-weary but not defeated. Smugly condescending, but not to the point of cruelty. Skeptical but, nonetheless, open-minded.

His characters always seem on the verge of saying something along the lines of “Show me what you’ve got; I’m ready to be amazed” ... even as his glance implies serious doubt that the person in question has anything, let alone anything amazing.

In short, Murray is a guaranteed treat.

But not even he can save this film.

A closing-credits text blurb explains that Rock the Kasbah honors Setara Hussainzada, the “girl who danced” during her 2008 performance on Afghan Star, Afghanistan’s answer to our own American Idol. Merely singing on live TV in that country is highly dangerous for women; to do so brands them as blasphemers in the eyes of fundamentalists, who are inclined to view killing such “transgressors” as wholly justified.

But to compound the felony by dancing? Unthinkable.

Okay, Hussainzada’s courageous act definitely demands a story, and scripter Mitch Glazer has embraced that challenge. But rather poorly, as it turns out. Rock the Kasbah hasn’t the faintest idea what it wants to be — comedy, drama or rock-hued homage — and not even a director as talented as Barry Levinson can create a pearl from this tone-deaf grain of sand.

Depicting the senseless futility of war, particularly a tribal and/or religious conflict, seems to demand a dollop of dark humor; some would argue that it’s the only way to remain sane in the midst of gory madness. And, no question, some snarky classics have found precisely the right tone: Dr. Strangelove, Catch-22, M.A.S.H. and Levinson’s Wag the Dog come to mind.

But Levinson and Glazer never even get close here; their film is too grim to be truly funny, but too ludicrous to be taken seriously. It borders on cultural disrespect and sexism, and it’s also random and sloppy; Glazer introduces plot points and secondary characters who wander vaguely into the narrative, shine for a few scenes, and then simply vanish.

I often wonder how some films get made: how anybody, at any point in time, could have detected merit in what seems — and it must have been obvious — such a blatantly bum script. This is one of those scripts.

The time is roughly a decade ago, give or take. Murray stars as Richie Lanz, a has-been music promoter reduced to a Van Nuys office, where he swindles talentless, wannabe singers out of their life savings. (Right away, a premise that’s supposed to be funny, but which Levinson cuts rather too close to the bone. We feel uneasy, not amused.)

Richie talks a good show, having persuaded one of his clients — Zooey Deschanel, as Ronnie — to pull double-duty as his secretary. She’s got a reasonable voice but is a hopeless performer, even as she buys into Richie’s descriptively rich anecdotes about how he “made” Madonna, or bonded with Stevie Nicks, and so forth.

Actually, Deschanel’s presence is one of this film’s few genuine highlights, not to mention an extremely subtle gag. Indie-pop fans know full well that she’s a talented singer/songwriter, and half of the popular touring duo She & Him; watching Ronnie flail helplessly on stage here is a droll hoot.

With nowhere else to go but further down, Richie accepts a rather weird offer to bring Ronnie on a USO tour of Afghan towns safeguarded by American soldiers. Ronnie hates the idea; she can’t even endure the plane trip, let alone the Humvee ride to their first hotel, with its sandbag fortifications.

We spend a bit of time with Private Barnes (Taylor Kinney), who seems likable enough. Kinney makes him personable, but don’t get attached; he just sorta wanders out of these proceedings. Arian Moayed proves more stable as Riza, a taxi driver who (reluctantly) becomes Richie’s guide, translator and cultural advisor.

In short order, we also meet Merci (Kate Hudson), a smokin’ hot prostitute who services long lines of American soldiers in her double-wide house trailer; Jake (Scott Caan) and Nick (Danny McBride), a pair of opportunistic arms dealers who supply weapons to anybody with ready cash; and “Bombay Brian” (Bruce Willis), a mercenary who takes an instant dislike to Richie (which I’d say shows good taste).

Give Hudson credit: She makes the most of Merci’s introduction — a smoldering scene with Murray, framed to iconic perfection by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt — which evokes pleasant memories of her equally incredible, back-lit entrance in 2000’s Almost Famous.

But that’s only momentary distraction. Knowing where this story is supposed to go — as trailers, interviews and media clips have made abundantly clear — Levinson and Glazer spend (waste?) an interminable amount of screen time with such sidebar characters. Indeed, we’ve already met the young woman fated to turn Richie’s life around, during an opening prologue; waiting for this penny to drop becomes a test of patience.

Finally — finally — Richie winds up in the Pashtun village where Salima (Leem Lubany) has secretly taught herself to sing. Hearing her practice, late one night, Richie has the anticipated epiphany: his entire being transformed by the voice of an angel.

But the obviously cultural hurdles persist, starting with the fact that Salima’s father (Fahim Fazil, as Tariq) isn’t about to let his daughter “disrespect” Allah in such a fashion. And, suddenly, we’re hit with more auxiliary plot points and characters, most notably the Afghan Star host (Beejan Land, as Daoud Sididi) who must be persuaded to put Salima in the next competitive round; and a rival Pashtun strongman (Jonas Khan, as Nizar) who wants to kill Tariq and take over the village, in order to grow poppies and sell opium.

Right about this point, savvy filmgoers will recognize that we have enough plot contrivances for the next half-dozen movies. And none of them really work here.

Granted, it’s refreshing — wonderful, really — to see a young Muslim woman portrayed in such an uplifting, positive manner. Lubany puts genuine heart and passion into her handling of Salima, and she gets more emotional juice from her heartfelt speeches than Glazer’s Yoda-esque dialog deserves. And, yes, Fazil is similarly engaging as Salima’s obviously conflicted father: definitely more than a one-note role.

But it’s too little, and much too late. Glazer’s script even robs us of what should be the emotional climax — whatever does or doesn’t happen to Salima, during her Afghan Star appearance — and detours instead to a nasty tribal skirmish. How could a director of Levinson’s talent misjudge his third act so badly?

And while there’s more than a little irony attached to the fact that Salima sings a pair of classic Cat Stevens songs — in English, heaven forefend — some viewers may not be ready to overlook that former pop star’s 1989 swipe at Salman Rushdie, following Stevens’ re-emergence as Yusuf Islam.

Rock the Kasbah is an unsatisfying mess. Even Murray frequently seems at sea, flailing his arms as if hoping for Allah to drop some freshly inspired script pages from the sky. It’s an often wincingly uncomfortable performance in a weirdly incoherent storyline.

Better luck next time, Bill.

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