The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Rock the Kasbah

Rock the Kasbah was inspired by the true story of Setara Hussainzada, the first woman ever to sing and dance on Afghan Star - Afghanistan's answer to American Idol - without a hijab. Of course, in that culture, women are scarcely allowed to show their faces, much less perform so freely on television. It was an act that earned her death threats. The movie involves a young woman just like Hussainzada, but since this is Hollywood we're talking about, the story is told through the eyes of a white man who helps her.

Bill Murray plays Richie Lanz, a washed-up music manager. One evening at a bar, he gets an offer to book one of his singers, Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel), on a USO tour in Afghanistan. As soon as they get there, Ronnie freaks out, abandoning Richie without his passport and money. He stumbles around for a while, meeting a host of eccentric Americans working in Kabul, including a prostitute (Kate Hudson), a mercenary (Bruce Willis), and two lowlife arms dealers (Danny McBride and Scott Caan). Then, one night, he discovers a Pashtun woman, Salima (Leem Lubany), secretly - and beautifully - singing in a cave. He gets the bright idea to get her on Afghan Star, believing that she can win. It could be his chance at professional redemption, but her father Tariq (Fahim Fazli) is not happy about this break from tradition.

In its first 40 or so minutes, there's a devious spark to Rock the Kasbah. Written by Mitch Glazer (Scrooged), it captures a bit of the feel of those great 1980s anti-establishment comedies. Wild man Bill Murray is set loose in ultra-conservative Afghanistan, doing things like playing a sitar and singing “Smoke on the Water” in a very Nick the Lounge Singer-esque voice during a dinner party. You think it's going to be Stripes or Meatballs in the Middle East. There are some real laughs as wisecracking Richie tries to navigate a culture that's vastly different from the one he's familiar with.

Rather than simply going on autopilot, which admittedly would have been easy, Murray really creates a character here. Richie is desperate but shrewd. He's been off his game for so long that it's become comfortable. Unrest in Afghanistan is merely another hurdle for him to schmooze his way through. Murray's great, and the supporting cast backs him up wonderfully. McBride and Caan are hilarious in their brief scenes as the unapologetic opportunists who exploit conflict for cash. Bruce Willis subtly sends up his tough guy image as the unflappable mercenary, and Kate Hudson scores a memorable scene in which her character makes Richie a sexual offer he can't refuse. Zooey Deschanel, meanwhile, gets one of the biggest (and edgiest) laughs in the film when Ronnie has a panic attack while flying on a plane to the Middle East and realizing everyone on board is, naturally, Middle Eastern.

Despite a strong start and good performances, Rock the Kasbah suffers significantly from a couple of unfortunate realities. The first is that satirizing American Idol-type shows and the situation in Afghanistan feels substantially out of date. The movie probably would have played a lot funnier eight or ten years ago. More troublesome is that the film makes Salima a background player. She's the one bravely defying convention. She's the one most likely to be killed as a result. And yet, the character barely even has a personality. Salima's function is to be the thing that potentially launches Richie into success. There's something disconcerting about Rock the Kasbah's insistence on pushing her off to the side while simultaneously delivering a (fairly obvious) message about how women in the Middle East shouldn't be silenced. To work, the movie needed much more from her perspective. Why does she want to break tradition? How does she feel about upsetting her father? Does she fear the death threats? None of these perfectly reasonable questions are even remotely addressed.

Rock the Kasbah, directed by Barry Levinson, therefore ends up being a mixed bag. The sillier scenes of Bill Murray traipsing through a dangerous part of the world are fun, but when the story tries to get at something more serious, it falls apart pretty quickly.

( 1/2 out of four)

Rock the Kasbah is rated PG-13 for language including sexual references, some drug use and brief violence. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.

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