Bill Murray long ago attained ice-cool, comic god status playing grouchy, sloppy S.O.B.’s you wouldn’t want to spend more than 10 minutes around in real life. When Murray’s stony-eyed curmudgeon gets plunked into movies that work – Stripes, Groundhog Day, Ghostbusters and Lost in Translation, for instance – he can be hilarious, transcendent, and annoying…a kind of modern, zonked-out equivalent of W. C. Fields. In the inert, bumbling Rock the Kasbah, he’s mostly just lost, aggravating, and unfunny.
Inspired by a true story and directed, astonishingly, by none other than Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Wag the Dog) from a script by Mitch Glazer (Scrooged), the tailor-made project casts Murray as Richie Lanz, a played-out Los Angeles ‘60s rock music rep who brags about having discovered Madonna and pulling Stevie Nicks out of a career nosedive, but lives in a crappy apartment in Van Nuys, California.
In the flick’s opening moments, the meant-to-be-lovable loser is desperately auditioning yet another terrible singer from whom to extract $1200 for various “expenses” and non-existent managerial fees. When a lucrative USO tour spot gets offered to his office receptionist/aspiring lounge singer (Zooey Deschanel, way off her game), Lanz leaps at it but instead gets deserted, fleeced, stripped of his wallet and passport, and marooned in war-ravaged Kabul, Afghanistan. There, he happens upon a traditional Pashtun girl (Leem Lubany) warbling a haunting version of Cat Stevens’ “Trouble” in a cave. Lanz thinks she’s got the goods to be the first woman to sing on the popular local American Idol-type reality show “Afghan Star.” But how to outsmart the young beauty’s conservative father, who would kill her if she sang for an audience?
In a pileup of ridiculous plot complications – some of which feel as if they were pulled out of thin air on the day of shooting – Lanz gets entangled with an unhinged soldier of fortune (Bruce Willis) and a skeevy pair of ex-Herbalife sellers (Danny McBride, Scott Caan) riding high on profits from supplying ammunition to what they call to so-called “good guys.” And there’s Lanz’ sidebar session in a nightclub with Kate Hudson, a canny hooker with a heart of gold with whom he spends the night, and wakes up the next morning wearing a wig and makeup.
Murray could do a clueless anti-hero role like this in his sleep, but here — even with his wicked improv skills — he seems defeated, completely at a loss. The movie never finds its tone, either, which doesn’t help Murray or anyone else. Rock the Kasbah ends on an entirely false, unearned note of "feel good” sentimentality but, really, the best thing to do is to leave the theater, look the other way, and pretend it never happened.