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'Rock the Kasbah' review: Musically arrogant

"Rock the Kasbah" stars Bill Murray as Richie

"Rock the Kasbah" stars Bill Murray as Richie Lanz and Kate Hudson as Merci. Credit: AP / Kerry Brown

If it seems that Americans aren't as concerned as they should be about our 14-year war in Afghanistan, here's an unlikely movie that proves it: "Rock the Kasbah," a music-themed comedy from director Barry Levinson ("Good Morning, Vietnam").

Starring Bill Murray as Richie Lanz, a washed-up American music manager who discovers a talented singer named Salima (Leem Lubany) in Afghanistan's Paktia province, "Rock the Kasbah" strives to be "Jerry Maguire" in the Middle East, a feel-good film about belief in oneself. (It's dedicated to Setara Hussainzada, who endured death threats after singing on the television show "Afghan Star.") Casting Murray to type as a laid-back lounge-lizard in one of the least chilled-out places on Earth, "Rock the Kasbah" positions itself as a slightly topical but mostly zany fish-out-of-water comedy.

The problem here is not so much the fish as the water -- an ongoing war that has claimed the lives of tens of thousands. Levinson and writer Mitch Glazer use this as the backdrop for high jinks and slapstick as Richie jive-talks his way through tribal warfare, exploding IEDs and possible honor killings. Danny McBride and Scott Caan as pot-smoking munitions dealers, along with Bruce Willis as a mercenary named Bombay Brian, prove that "Rock the Kasbah" regards Afghanistan the way "The Hangover" regarded Las Vegas -- a wild 'n' woolly town full of colorful rascals.

There's even a gorgeous prostitute, Miss Merci (an ill-used Kate Hudson). The film's Pashtuns are either bemused bumpkins or stupid brutes -- the same stereotypes Hollywood has offered to blacks for decades.

Almost as appalling as the semi-comic portrayal of a village massacre is the central conceit that Salima (a pretty cipher) could sway Afghani hearts and minds by belting out an English-language pop tune. The fact that it's "Peace Train" by the Islamic convert Cat Stevens, now known as Yusuf Islam, doesn't wash. The whole idea -- that savage Eastern beasts could be soothed by our fine Western songcraft -- seems like the arrogant, ignorant fantasy of a 19th-century missionary, not an ostensibly hip music manager.

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