Director: Barry Levinson
Cast: Bill Murray, Zooey Deschanel, Kate Hudson and Leem Lubany
Running Time: 106 minutes
Release Date: March 18th
When it comes to ill-advised subjects for a comedy, numbers one and two on the list today have to be Islam and the Middle East. These ideas only worsen the further west of Mecca you travel, until you hit America, at which point, they become borderline unacceptable.
The two factors to render these subjects a no-go area are the reactionary elements of Islam and Twitter. Should you try and crack wise about Muslims, or the Arabic world then you will likely have to answer to fringe elements from either of the above groups at some point. If the Wahhabi-Salafists don’t chase after you for appropriating parts of their belief, then the easily offended platitude sharers will call you racist (when you talk about Islam), or Islamophobic (when you talk about the Arabic people).
Therefore, it was quite brazen of Bill Murray and director Barry Levinson to tackle wartorn Afghanistan and reactionary Islamic tribalism in Rock the Kasbah, a film, which excels in its humanitarian agenda, but stumbles due to the weak plot, laden with inconsistencies and underdeveloped arcs. The story of Richie Lanz, a washed up talent agent who operates out of a damp seedy office resembling a motel, his life essentially consists of scamming ambitious singers out of their money. However, an escape from this incessant loop of deceit and managing cover artists in dingy bars arises when he discovers his main asset, a glam rock singer known as Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel) could earn him slightly bigger bucks if she performs on a USO tour.
Forcing her to sign up to play in Kabul, Afhganistan, the pair embark upon this dangerous journey, her kicking, screaming and crying all the way to the US occupied city. A brilliant image, the sight of Deschanel clutching a ukulele as she passes burned out cars, armed locals and a potentially violent end around each corner, this bit sadly remains just that as Ronnie panics and flees the city with his money. Leaving Richie and the plot for good, at this point, the story switches over to the trials and tribulations of Richie Lanz as he attempts to negotiate his way out of an unending slew of flirtations with death.
Desperate, Richie’s only means of an escape is to take work as a weapons courier for a pair of hip and stoned arms dealers. Journeying out to a vast desert plain, inhabited by a Pashtun tribe, this momentary deviation from his day job leads to a discovery, which could drastically alter his career.
Hidden up among these marginalised villagers is Salima, a young girl with an exceptional voice. Yet, she is an oppressed person within an oppressed group, forbidden from singing, since such an act, if committed by a female is seen as being morally deviant and contrary to their readings of the Sunni faith.
Torn, Richie must decide whether to encourage her to sing live on the Afghani version of American Idol, or insure her well-being by allowing religious tradition to pin her down. An interesting dilemma, which argues in favour of free expression above appeasement, Rock the Kasbah is a defiant statement that believes in a singular morality, which should pander to religious conservatism, even if to do so is the easier, liberally inclined way of thinking.
A work of post-ethnic cosmopolitanism, which respects the right of any person, or group to pursue their own form of belief, provided it does not impinge on the human rights of others, Rock the Kasbah can easily be misconstrued as a positive take on Western intervention with a supposed higher morality. But to reach such a conclusion is to read the film quite superficially. The fact that Richie is American is secondary, almost coincidental. He is practical, with no political or nationalist affiliations. His only belief is in those whom are signed to his agency, and for this, he is a fascinating character and one of the sole highlights in this mixed bag.
His moral challenge is what keeps the work lingering in an audience’s memory, and for this reason, Rock the Kasbah deserves at least a small round of applause. Ralph Ellison once said that the sign of a good leader depends upon how he or she penetrates your thoughts, and does not allow you to forget their power for even a second. In this sense, and despite the many faults contained within the film itself, the fact that the central idea does not vanish from your mind is the sign of at least a partial victory overall.