THE BEST SCENE in Rock the Kasbah comes after the movie is finished when the end credits are rolling, at which point Bill Murray, still theoretically "in character," barters with an Afghan merchant over the price of a stuffed elephant. It's great. The merchant knows exactly two words of English, but Murray bounces from thought to thought like a champion prizefighter—all while juggling an armful of props and managing the game-but-clearly-bewildered extra. It's exactly the sort of scene you'd expect to pepper a Murray vehicle helmed by industry veterans like director Barry Levinson and writer Mitch Glazer. It's too bad the rest of the movie isn't like it.
Kasbah's sins are minor but manifold, leading to a death by inches that saps all potency from an otherwise solid premise. Murray plays Richie Lanz, a washed-up rock manager stranded in Afghanistan with Salima (Leem Lubany), a young Pashtun woman who dreams of stardom. It's an eminently functional framework for a fun and/or uplifting and/or satirical culture clash, but Levinson and Glazer never quite get to the good parts, instead overcomplicating the journey, and repeatedly, inexplicably, relying on a series of plot points that can best be described as "an intoxicated person who is never seen again decides to help Bill Murray." Drunk or not, I think we would all help Bill Murray if given the chance, but there's got to be a limit in terms of screenwriting.
The character work is similarly inconsistent, with pretty much the entire cast's motivations veering wildly and arbitrarily, sometimes within the span of a single scene. Bruce Willis plays "Grumpy Bruce Willis Villain" at first—but then he shows up later as "Grumpy Bruce Willis Friend" without much of an explanation. To be fair, there's an entire film franchise about that transition, but here it's almost perfunctory.
Our current renaissance of loosely scripted, bro-y ensemble comedies from Mssrs. Apatow and McKay owes a big debt to Levinson's Diner, and Levinson's past work with the likes of Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams shows he knows how to utilize heavyweight improvisers. But Kasbah feels off-kilter and punch drunk, a film filled with third-best takes and choppy edits. Some scenes meander for ages, while other fairly important moments are skipped entirely. I don't need an intricate David Fincher diorama of cause and effect here, but I'd like to know why there are no longer doors on a car.
The better parts of Kasbah hint at a sharper, more satirical film, in which the patois of Hollywood deal-making is layered over with a cast of mercenary gun-runners and tribal warlords. But for a film about salesmanship, Kasbah can't quite decide who's selling what to whom. Keeping the focus squarely on manager Lanz and not Salima would have felt more warranted if Murray were 20 years younger or Lubany weren't such a promising actor.
All that said, Bill Murray is as much an institution as a man at this point. We're currently in the "sad, sleepy" portion of his career with Wes Anderson cameos and films like St. Vincent. Kasbah is a throwback to his earlier, more madcap work. And while it's not a hit by any means, it's certainly not a total miss. There's a bright cast, a handful of good setups, and an impeccable dad-rock soundtrack. If you need something to see with your buddy who can quote the entirety of Stripes, or that beloved family member who showed you Ghostbusters for the first time, well, you'll probably be fine. But even if you hate it, stick around for the credits. That stuffed elephant scene is really something.