Bill Murray’s presence in a film can be a tremendously powerful thing. After all, the guy has spent decades hypnotizing us with his charm and building up good will in the public consciousness, and we’re now at a point where his appearance gives any project he’s involved with a certain edge where being appreciable is concerned. This is basically the story of director Barry Levinson’s Rock The Kasbah - an entirely scattershot dramedy that only remains held together by Murray’s performance.
Based on an original screenplay by Mitch Glazer, the film stars Bill Murray as Richie Lanz, a big-talking, aging music manager working out of a dumpy office in Van Nuys, CA doing everything in his power to try and find something even remotely resembling success. Unfortunately, his only really talented client is a flighty warbler named Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel) who he won’t let sing anything but covers in small local joints. While Richie struggles to stay afloat, an opportunity comes his way that he believes will be his big break: getting Ronnie on the USO Tour in Afghanistan. Of course, this doesn’t exactly go as planned.
Shortly after arriving in the Middle East, Ritchie finds himself completely stranded, as Ronnie freaks out and sells all of his belongings to a mercenary (Bruce Willis) to help her get back to America. Destitute and passport-less, he finds himself in serious trouble, but finds a glimmer of salvation after teaming up with a pair of arms dealers (Danny McBride, Scott Caan) leads him to hear the beautiful singing voice of a Pashtun girl (Leem Lubany) whom Ritchie thinks can find big success through the Afghanistan version of American Idol.
If that plot description reads as dense, top heavy, and just a bit all over the place, then I’ve done my job recreating the experience following Rock The Kasbah’s story. The film often seems to try and play as an ensemble piece – with Deschanel, Willis, McBride, Caan, and Kate Hudson popping in and out throughout the runtime – but it never really fully hangs together simply because the characters feel more like tools of the narrative than actual people. To all of the actors’ credit, they do a fine job opposite Murray and provide plenty for the star to work with/against, but they also feel much more like stencils than fleshed-out forms.
An individual movie-goer’s baseline feelings about Bill Murray are really going to dictate their personal enjoyment of Rock The Kasbah, and I’ll admit to being an apologist for the comedy legend; I simply appreciate his style that much. The film doesn’t exactly offer new levels of depth for Murray, and it doesn’t make tremendous efforts to stretch the actor’s range. But Richie Lanz is a character that fits squarely inside of his wheelhouse, and he does what he does best with it. As you might figure, it’s not hard to listen to him yammer on about his relationship with legendary rock stars, not to mention do a bit of his own comedic crooning. You’d probably get similar results if you just dropped Bill Murray in Afghanistan with a documentary crew, but I’d probably watch the hell out of that, too.
With its flawed approach to character, and it’s wonky structure that prevents the movie from really starting until deep into its runtime, Rock The Kasbah is hard to clinically define as a “good” movie, but its merits as a fine and enjoyable one are certainly arguable. It’s an ultimately forgettable little film destined to be randomly picked up by Bill Murray fans and discovered for being not so bad.