Warning, this Rock the Kasbah Review contains spoilers.
Rock the Kasbah gives Bill Murray an outlet to gracefully age the most iconic characters of his youth and come out triumphant, but it comes off a little parched. Barry Levinson brings heart to the desert, but no matter how many goats he blows up, Rock the Kasbah still comes off as naïve mainstream wallpaper. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its laughs, you can’t put those two together and not come out laughing, but they’re not full belly laughs and they weren’t filling. Fellow reviewer Michael Musto was nibbling on his candy bracelet halfway through.
It’s easy to label Richie Lanz a sad sack. He has to talk to his daughter from the yard through a bedroom window and loses his receptionist-talent, played by Zooey Deschanel, on her very first tour. He’s been reduced to a kind of rock and roll Broadway Danny Rose, if he ever really was anything before he got whittled down. But Murray has to be at the bottom of his life at the top of a movie. He was made to overcome. Futility has to rule the day. In Ghostbusters, Murray’s character had just been out of the only school he and his post-grad friends could con into taking their pseudoscience seriously. In Stripes, he said he was at the bottom of his life after all that sex ed didn’t keep his girlfriend interested.
Richie Lanz is Jerry Aldini, Murray’s loung singing character, all grown up, except that he could never grow up. We would never let him. We want that noogie. Murray delivers on it. When he tells Merci, the happy hooker with a heart of gold played by Kate Hudson, that he has an idea, he sounds like he’s talking to Lisa Loopner. He is completely dedicated to a part he’s been honing for years, for laughs, for personal giggles. Lanz’s Aldini transformation is complete when he gets the lyrics wrong in his heartfelt rendition of the Deep Purple classic “Smoke on the Water,” the first riff everyone learns when they pick up a guitar. He turns the ceremonial tea transaction into a campfire party that wouldn’t be out of place in Meatballs.
Murray has all the history the character needs. His Hunter S. Thompson would have been appalled by the tiny tokes he takes with the Herbalife salesmen-turned-arms dealers, Nic (Danny McBride) and Jake (Scott Caan), but we remember that Murray dealt with whatever and whoever Lazlo threw at him with a pickled aplomb.
Bruce Willis doesn’t really have that much to do. He looks intimidating and dangerous, but he’s Bruce Willis, the guy who reminded us we all eat shit once in a while in Fast Food Nation and watched his old self die in Twelve Monkeys. It is vaguely unsettling to see him with his arms all over Zooey Deschanel when she’s on her Mexican Quaaludes upon hitting Afghanistan. He really looks like he might skull fuck Lanz as an appetizer or just to shut him up. But it is not consistent to have him, even reluctantly, champion the chatty negotiator at the battle of the Alamo.
The settings are harsh. Levinson deftly short-hands the contrast between Van Nuys and Kabul with a desert crossing. He creates suspense at every check point and gives the word “click” an eerie significance. Armored vehicles and machine gun turrets surround the city, the outlying areas and all the nightspots. The hotel is the only safe place for miles and even that doesn’t have guaranteed security. Yet, Merci (Kate Hudson) can set up shop and disco balls glitter, so there are signs of life during war time.
There’s a whole lot of formula at play though. Levinson revolutionized comedy and film itself by allowing dialogue to wander naturally off course while letting the story move forward in Diner. While Murray probably had a loose rein as Lanz, everything still moves forward on a tight deadline. Screenwriter Mitch Glazer sets up fairly insurmountable problems, only to have them bulldozed over too quickly and easily. The girl and her family will be put to death if she sings. But she sings and wows the nation. We think she lives, the movie doesn’t tell us whether she’s killed with sharpened stones after she picks up her 5,000 American dollars.
Unlike Wag The Dog, where Levinson deftly traversed the impossible by showing how plausible it really was, Rock The Kasbah just solves everything, magically. We don’t know why Salima’s (Leem Lubany) father doesn’t cut off Lanz’s head, but he doesn’t. We don’t know why the threats of the whole village to klll the slut who sings so shamefully don’t come true, they just don’t.
Artists who used to break barriers are now part of the establishment. Saturday Night Live used to be an almost-daring offshoot of National Lampoon’s outsider irreverence, but it got watered down as the players got ready for prime time money and smoothed over the rough edges. Now it is the established pinnacle of commercial comedy. Levinson maintained a steady and sharp edge through seriously funny satires like Wag the Dog but even though there are a lot of explosions, there isn’t much real distress. Like Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), it’s a light comedy set in a dark place but the laughs never pulls the shades.
Yusef Islam opens the film and is so much a part of it he is as much as character as Kabul. I remember being pissed off when Cat Stevens he wrote that nasty song about New York City. Yes, I was more upset over that than the fatwa against Salman Rushdie that he agreed with. But Yusef himself sings the Animals classic “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” so we forgive him. Islam’s works are still inspirational. Framing the film around cat’s songs was a nice way to dig around the relics. He was the emotional center, though it would have been nice to hear at least one Jimmy Cliff song.