“Safe as milk.” That’s the phrase used by the yahoo weapons merchant played by Danny McBride, as he describes a transaction involving guns and ammo, conveyed to Pashtun rebel forces in Afghanistan. His unlikely go-between in this desert landscape: Richie Lanz, the visiting L.A. talent manager portrayed by the great Bill Murray in the not-good “Rock the Kasbah.”
“Safe as milk” also describes the film itself. On the other hand, star vehicles this rickety have a way of making the world unsafe for comic democracy.
Director Barry Levinson’s latest picture, with a script by Mitch Glazer, was partly inspired by the true story of Setara Hussainzada (name-checked in the closing credits, though her equivalent character in “Rock the Kasbah” is fictional). In 2007, Hussainzada competed on the popular TV show “Afghan Star,” similar to England’s “Pop Idol” or our own “American Idol.” She risked death threats for singing and dancing on the show. At one point, she allowed her head scarf to fall to her shoulders. The chances she took, and the turns her post-TV life took as a result, informed the documentary “Afghan Star” and a more recent half-hour HBO documentary titled “Silencing the Song.”
“Rock the Kasbah” has other plans. It’s Murray’s show, in addition to being a white-savior showbiz fable of a particularly dubious and retrograde variety. Working out of a motel in Van Nuys, Richie lands his sole legit client (Zooey Deschanel, uncharacteristically strident) a USO gig in Kabul. They fly there, but she bails upon arrival, leaving Richie without prospects. Then, one night in the desert, he hears the voice of an angel, coming from a cave. This is Salima (Palestinian actress Leem Lubany, who hangs on to her dignity if not her fair share of the storyline). Richie calls her “the chick in the red burqa.”
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Next stop: “Afghan Star”! With the support and prodding of a hooker with a golden heart (Kate Hudson), Richie works his rumpled magic. As a performer, Murray has plenty of the same, but this time it’s wasted on a script that doesn’t know what it wants or how to get there. One minute, we have Murray tied to a bedpost, wearing lipstick and a Marilyn Monroe wig; the next, we’re spying on a desert vehicle driven by Bruce Willis’ surly mercenary soldier as it runs afoul of an IED.
Richie is a fabrication, for the record. He’s also oddly dull company, considering the actor.
Rock the Kasbah
Cast: Bill Murray, Zooey Deschanel, Kate Hudson and Leem Lubany
Director: Barry Levinson
Rated R (language including sexual references, some drug use and brief violence)