‘Rock the Kasbah’ review: Bill Murray mired in a disaster

“Rock the Kasbah” is a debacle, but it’s not your everyday cinematic disaster. No, it’s far more inexplicable and utterly mean spirited than a run-of-the-mill piece of motion picture garbage.

With thousands of American troops still in Afghanistan, the country seemingly as unstable and dangerous as ever, and news reports filled with stories of violent atrocities there, this is clearly the wrong time for a comedy about an American music industry huckster indulging in some charming espionage in the country.

Beyond that forehead-smacking bit of cluelessness, though, the movie engages in some of the worst and most dated Hollywood instincts, reducing its Afghan characters to the one-dimensional other and simplifying a complex culture to classically xenophobic stereotypes.

Bill Murray, who probably should’ve known better, plays manager Richie Lanz, who arrived in Kabul for a USO tour with his less-than-stellar act (Zooey Deschanel), who promptly disappears with Lanz’s money and passport. What’s a burned-out, grizzled Southern California cliche to do? Get involved with munitions dealers (Danny McBride and Scott Caan) and a hooker “building her nest egg” in a double-wide trailer (Kate Hudson), before finally discovering a Pashtun woman (Leem Lubany), with a golden voice.

This woman’s story, and the larger story of “Afghan Star,” the televised singing competition that emerged in the wake of Taliban rule, into which Murray’s Lanz enters his discovery, are worth telling in a narrative picture. This movie, directed by Barry Levinson and written by Mitch Glazer, is not that. IIt’s about a dunderheaded American who has done nothing to earn our sympathy or emotional investment, Americanizing a country he doesn’t begin to understand in a wrongheaded fashion that the film intends for us to celebrate. There are IED jokes, cracks about honor killings and scenes of Lanz trampling on cultural traditions that are supposed to be funny but are never less than excruciating. Most egregiously, there’s a sequence of shots in which the violent deaths of quite a few people lead directly into a triumphant rendering of Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train,” over a montage of Afghans watching the program, suggesting there’s nothing like some good old-fashioned American weaponry to solve the world’s problems.