Bill Murray is Richie Lanz, a sleazy Los Angeles music manager. He’s the kind of guy who takes money from a wannabe singer with no talent and no chance of even the most measly sort of success but who is also naive enough to believe that it’s normal to pay him upfront. And he’s clearly been stringing along his assistant, Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel: Your Highness, Yes Man), who has been working for him in the expectation that she will get a boost to her own singing career. So when he takes her to Kabul — yes, in Afghanistan — to perform for U.S. troops, and she is so terrified of this dangerous place that she bails on him, stealing his wallet and passport in the process, does he finally learn the error of his disreputable ways? Of course not. He will find an even more obnoxious way to triumph, by “discovering” a Pashtun girl, Salima (Leem Lubany: Omar), with an amazing voice and getting her to perform on Afghan Star, the local TV equivalent of American Idol, even though women are forbidden from singing, and it would disgrace her family if she appeared.
I love Bill Murray (The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Monuments Men) — though even he cannot make Lanz charming — but all the noes must be rained down on this offensive flick. It’s bad enough that Lanz is a prototypical white savior barreling into a scary exotic foreign land and teaching the ignorant natives how to be better people, and actually being shown to be successful at this. (“You do not lecture me about courage!” yells one Afghan man at Lanz, who is nevertheless instantly won over by Lanz’s lecture on courage.) Much much worse is the fact that the script — by Mitch Glazer (The Recruit, Scrooged) — was inspired by a real woman who actually appeared on the real Afghan Star… because women have, in fact, not been forbidden from performing and have been appearing on the show since it debuted in 2005. So not only do Glazer and director Barry Levinson (Man of the Year, Envy) make the scenario more backward than it is in order to make Lanz look more heroic, they also had a ready-made story in the trials that real women have been subjected to (death threats and other gendered abuse), and they ignored it. Afghan women have obviously been plenty damn courageous in challenging the bigotries of their culture without needing the likes of Richie Lanz to lead them, but I guess there is no perception of entertainment value in that. In the version of the story Rock the Kasbah tells, Salima is barely a character: she is only a vehicle through which Lanz can win.
This is so tone deaf a movie — so deafeningly tone deaf — that the straight-up unironically “comic” idiot weapons dealers (Scott Caan [Meet Dave, Ocean’s Thirteen] and Danny McBride [This Is the End, As I Lay Dying]) and the abysmally clichéd hooker with a heart of gold (Kate Hudson: The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Something Borrowed) aren’t merely awful in their own right. They are significant contributors to the repellent overall theme: that Americans can do no wrong, even when they’re doing wrong, and that American values — even the negative ones, like greed and selfishness — will always succeed. There isn’t even any pleasure to be had in watching the concept of American exceptionalism in its last desperate throes to be taken seriously. This is everything that is wrong with Hollywood in a single movie.