Sunday, October 25, 2015

I'M NOT A LOSER. I'M A QUITTER: a review of "Rock The Kasbah"

Screenplay Written by Mitch Glazer
Directed by Barry Levinson
** (two stars)

How is it possible that a film with a title as anarchistic as this one be as dry as an Afghanistan desert?

I am not sure precisely what it is about Bill Murray, but he, perhaps more than any other of his comedic contemporaries, has ingratiated himself so deeply within the public consciousness and pop culture, has built an affection from his audience that only seems to continue to grow and has also continued to surprise with the depths of his acting abilities and yet, so very often, the films he makes fall short. "Rock The Kasbah" is yet another effort that possesses quite the potential to become a Bill Murray classic yet never reaches the brass ring, let alone contains enough juice to even jump for it in the first place.

Under the surprisingly laconic direction of legendary Director Barry Levinson, "Rock The Kasbah" is an intermittently entertaining yet ultimately underwhelming film that merges the Murray persona of his early and current career with a political satire and even an earnest feminist drama that unfortunately settles and sludges along when it otherwise should be as explosive and as dangerous as a firecracker left to explode inside of your hands.

"Rock The Kasbah" stars Bill Murray as Richie Lanz, a down and just-this-close to being out of business rock music manager, who takes his final singing client (yet employed as his secretary), Ronnie (a funny Zooey Deschanel) on a USO tour of Afghanistan, yet finds himself abandoned in war torn Kabul without funds or his passport.

As he attempts to figure out a way to return to Van Nuys, California, Richie runs afoul of two hard partying war profiteers (Danny McBride and Scott Caan), a gruff mercenary (Bruce Willis), the worldly wise and weary hooker (Kate Hudson), the Afghani disco music loving cab driver (Arian Moayed) among others including dangerous war lords. Yet, on one deep, dark night in the desert, Richie  stumbles upon the sight and sound of Salima Khan (Leem Lubany), a Pashtun teenage girl with a golden voice and enormous dreams of becoming the first woman to sing and compete on Afghanistan television's version of "American Idol."

It is here where Richie Lanz discovers his meal ticket, and ultimately his purpose, as he knows in his bones that he is the only one able to make Salima's dreams come true, life threatening cultural objections be damned.

With "Rock The Kasbah," I can confidently express that Bill Murray has absolutely nothing to do with any of the film's failures. On the contrary, whatever successes the film does achieve rest almost solely with him as Murray truly carries the film and he delivers yet another strong performance to add to his expanding collection. Yes, and as previously stated, Richie Lanz is cut from the same cloth as the characters from Bill Murray's earliest films. Like the gently anarchistic heroes he portrayed in Director Ivan Reitman's "Stripes" (1981) and "Ghostbusters" (1984), for instance, Richie Lanz is another cantankerous, wayward layabout on an existential downward slide who finds himself placed within an extraordinary situation or series of circumstances armed mostly with his brilliantly wicked wit and restless ingenuity.

Yet, as Murray also demonstrated in Director Harold Ramis' "Groundhog Day" (1993), Director Sofia Coppola's "Lost In Translation" (2003), Director Wes Anderson's "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" (2004), Director Jim Jarmusch's "Broken  Flowers" (2005) and Director Theodore Melfi's "St. Vincent" (2014) among others, he unearthed a powerfully effective level of dramatic pathos to give his characters a newfound gravity, helping us to see the pain housed inside the laughter and how the laughter is indeed the essential fuel to keep him placing one footstep in front of the other.

Richie Lanz is no exception as we can study all of those wonderful lines in Murray's aged face, detailing all of the deep miles this character has undertaken in his long and not-so-illustrious career. Lanz is a charlatan, more than a bit of a cheat, a schemer and a scoundrel and even shades of Nick the Lounge Singer, Murray's iconic character from "Saturday Night Live," make an appearance. And still, Lanz carries a certain moral code and sense of  honor that is indeed unshakable, and as the film continues onwards and situations grow more dire for Salima, he becomes quite endearing. Bill Murray's peerless turn of a phrase and Wile E. Coyote-like persona goes a tremendous way within the entirety of "Rock The Kasbah." You are unable to take your eyes away from him and you never want to for even with the smallest raise of an eyebrow or the slightest shrug of a shoulder, Bill Murray remains in a class by himself.

So, it is a shame that like the very good yet terribly predictable "St. Vincent," we are given a terrific Bill Murray performance in a movie that never matches his inventiveness. The faults of this film for me do lie directly at the feet of Screenwriter Mitch Glazer and definitely Barry Levinson, who showed little of the comedic and directorial gifts he has displayed in the past time and again.

For Glazer, I can certainly express to you that "Rock The Kasbah" is not remotely short on ideas but that was the problem for me; it felt as if the film never really advanced beyond the idea stage. Character development, aside from Richie Lanz, exists at a bare minimum. Kate Hudson's character, especially arriving in 2015 is just thankless as well as a sad reminder that her finest work remains in Director Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous" (2000). Honestly, can we please just place a moratorium over impossibly gorgeous hookers with hearts of gold once and for all?

Beyond that, the characters of the mercenary, the war profiteers, and frankly, all of the Afghanistan people are paper thin at best, even though they all feel as if there is much story to tell, especially as they all exist within a very real and dangerous world. Yes, "Rock The Kasbah" is a comedy, but I did feel frustrated that Glazer's screenplay would have the audacity to enter into a world of deep moral, political, social, sexual, theological complications that the inevitable culture clash would be one worth exploring and therefore, satirizing, and Glazer just did not go for it. These characters all exist solely as ideas and never transcend the idea to become three-dimensional human beings, which would then give the proper gravity to the film to add essential weight and tension to the comedy.

The entire film truly hinges upon Salima Khan and it is a shame that "Rock The Kasbah" only seems to give brief lip service to the harsh reality implicit in a young woman daring to go on television, with fully exposed hair and face (with makeup to boot)and singing the songs of Cat Stevens in English. That concept by itself shows what a movie "Rock The Kasbah" could have been if Glazer fully committed to--once again with feeling--the ideas he set to paper in the first place. But all we have is a very pretty young woman looking hopeful and offering plastic platitudes and I firmly believe that a character like this deserved so much more than what was given to her.

But Barry Levinson certainly did Glazer's screenplay and the film overall no favors with his dry as the desert direction which had no energy, no snap, and no bite--all of which were on superior display in his brilliant "Wag The Dog" (1997) and most certainly, "Good Morning, Vietnam" (1987), two films of which "Rock The Kasbah" certainly could have existed as a companion piece. This was more than confounding to me as "Rock The Kasbah" is not only screaming for a go-for-broke teeth baring satire like John Cusack's wildly brutal passion project "War, Inc" (2008), but I was stunned that Levinson carried the same banal, dispassionate tonal quality throughout, even as the film slides from comedy to tragedy and back to comedy.

At one point late in the film, as situations are looking particularly grim, one character expresses to Richie Lanz and he is about to cut his losses and head for the hills, that he is a loser and a quitter, to which he replies, "I'm not a loser. I'm a quitter." "Rock The Kasbah" feels like that. While it is by no means a disaster, and does indeed find Bill Murray completely committed to his part of the proceedings, the film as a whole just kind of gives up...even before it ever really gets itself revved up.


  1. I'll go see anything with Bill Murray in it. By the way, I just read your post about The Walk and it was great, I just wrote about it in my blog (wich I encourage you to visit):

    I hope you enjoy my review, and please feel free to leave me a comment over there or add yourself as a follower (or both), and I promise I'll reciprocate.



    1. Hey! I'd be happy to check out your blog! THANK YOU for reading mine!

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