“Rock the Kasbah” is what the Brits call a “toss off.”
Director Barry Levinson’s latest is so lightweight that one comes away wondering if the whole project wasn’t just an excuse to hang out with some amusing people in an exotic location.
Richie Lanz (Bill Murray) is a former rock ‘n’ roll tour manager whose best years are long behind him. Now he runs scams on hopelessly untalented “singers” looking for their big break.
He lucks into a USO tour of Afghanistan using his Girl Friday (Zoe Deschenel) as the “star,” but the young lady is so appalled by Kabul’s chaos and violence that she bails, taking Richie’s passport and money with her.
Stranded in a strange world, Richie is adopted by a couple of stoner gun runners (Danny McBride, Scott Caan) who recruit him to make a delivery of ammo to a remote village.
There Richie discovers a great talent, a beautiful girl named Salima (Leem Lubany) who defies tradition and religious edict by retreating to a cave and singing her heart out. (All she knows are Cat Stevens tunes, but it’s a start.)
Richie comes up with a plan to get Salima on Afghanistan’s version of “American Idol.” Except that in doing so he will be outraging half the nation — the male half — and putting both their lives in danger.
“Rock the Kasbah” was inspired by a real event. In 2014 a young Afghan woman named Shabana Faryad defied convention and religious leaders by becoming the first woman to audition for her country’s big televised singing contest.
In the film’s final moments Mitch Glazer’s shambling screenplay attempts to make a statement about female empowerment — though it’s too little too late.
Mostly this is a loose-as-a-goose comedy that feels as if was improvised by an overmedicated cast (think an episode of “Homeland” written by Hunter S. Thompson).
Murray is droll and dopey but only intermittently amusing. He’s fighting an uphill battle.
Bruce Willis, as a well-armed mercenary, and Kate Hudson, as an enterprising hooker, seem to just be along for the ride.
“Rock the Kasbah” has at least one terrific throwaway joke, something to do with Ann Coulter appearing on “Dancing With the Stars.” But mostly it’s a snooze with some troubling intimations of racism of the white-man’s-burden variety.