Richie Lanz (Bill Murray, “Groundhog Day”) is a washed-up music manager who is still searching for the successful act that will solidify his place in history. But, much like Lanz, “Rock the Kasbah” strives for greatness with such fervor that it misses the opportunity to at least tell a somewhat decent story. With a jumble of serious to superficial focuses and underdeveloped characters, the film stumbles on its way to success.
Jumping from situational comedy to action film to heartfelt drama, “Rock the Kasbah” is never able to gain momentum on the genre rollercoaster it pulls its audience through. After his unstable rock star client, Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel, “500 Days of Summer”), abandons him in Kabul at the beginning of their haphazard USO tour, Lanz must find a way back to the U.S. without money, a passport or any clue of what he’s going to do next. After a drawn-out journey through the war-torn city — where he meets the mystical call girl Merci (Kate Hudson, “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days”) and gets wrapped up in an ammo exchange between American trader Bombay Brian (Bruce Willis, “Die Hard”) and a local village — Richie finds purpose when he meets a young Pashtun girl who dreams of being a famous singer. Fighting against the girl’s family, the producers from the singing show “Afghan Star,” and the country’s traditional culture, he manages to find her national recognition when she is given the opportunity to perform on national TV.
While the plot seems fantastical enough to produce an engrossing film, its quick shuffle through thin characters leaves the audience unsure and unattached by the end. Lanz and Ronnie have barely had a few minutes of screentime before the central plot point of an Afghanistan USO tour is introduced, and it’s difficult to stay investment when things begin to go haywire in Kabul. Ronnie is gone within the first half hour, and the absence of her character adds a sense of distrust to the rest of the film’s introductions. Additionally, there’s a strange sense that all actors involved are playing a slightly altered version of themselves, with Deschanel as the unstable waif, Murray as the unsatisfied witness and Hudson as the enigmatic seductress, attempting to reprise her role as a mysterious groupie in “Almost Famous.” The story comes solely from placing these already known characterizations in a completely unknown and unpredictable setting. While this story-building strategy tends to succeed in some films, in “Kasbah,” it only serves to cheapen an already jumbled plot.
The strange taste these characterizations leave is only intensified through the juxtaposition between the war-torn Middle East and colorfully mindless rock star characters through whom we see the setting. There’s something uncomfortable about Lanz deciding its worth risking a young Pashtun girl’s life because he believes she is talented, or watching him walk through the streets, disheveled in a paisley shirt and rose glasses, while children run after him asking for money or treats. While the characters are not completely unaffected by the situation — Ronnie skips town as soon as possible, Richie screams for minutes in disoriented terror after his car drives over an IED — these moments are approached with a comedic jab that suggests we should recognize these incidents as play.
The film’s only redeeming factor comes from its images. Morally, it’s strange to look at Ronnie and Lanz walking bedraggled through the rubble and smoke-filled streets in metallic bell bottoms and velvet jackets, visually it’s a vibrant and extremely rock ‘n’ roll picture. They drive a vintage yellow taxi through endless desert hills, and Merci’s illuminated, multicolor trailer sits behind countless loops of barbed wire on an empty street. The mise en scene presents a tension that continues through the story — if only this story was strong enough to justify the dynamic images that compose the film.
Following a group of pseudo rock stars through the Middle East sounds like a colorful thrill ride, but with flat characters leading us along a confusing and unmotivated plot, “Rock the Kasbah” edges past exciting and into the realm of pointless exploration.