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Movie REview

Bill Murray goes to Afghanistan in ‘Rock the Kasbah’

Bill Murray as an American talent agent in Kabul.
Bill Murray as an American talent agent in Kabul.Courtesy of Open Roads Films

Bill Murray may be America’s beloved crazy uncle, but he has a goodly number of dogs on his resume, and “Rock the Kasbah” shoots to the top — or is that the bottom? — of the list. Witless, listless, directionless, the movie is unfunny in at least two different languages.

Worse, in sending a ka-razy American talent agent to Afghanistan to promote a tribal singing star in the midst of war, the movie’s just plain offensive to the culture and the people with which it claims to sympathize. The movie represents Hollywood cultural colonialism at its most head-bangingly dense.

Murray plays Richie Lanz, a faded rock ’n’ roll agent who claims to have discovered Madonna, among other lies. He gets his remaining client, a singer named Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel), an opening slot on a USO tour in Kabul, but as soon as they’re in-country, Ronnie heads back out, spooked by the IEDs and taking Richie’s passport and cash with her. He falls in with two wacky arms merchants (Danny McBride and Scott Caan), an industrious American hooker (Kate Hudson, cringe-inducing), and a grizzled mercenary (Bruce Willis) and winds up in a Pashtun desert village, where at night he hears the sultry voice of Salima (Leem Lubany, “Omar”) emanating from a cave. The chieftain’s daughter, she’s forbidden from singing but dreams of entering the hit TV contest “Afghan Star” with her cover versions of classic Cat Stevens (a.k.a. Yusuf Islam) songs. Are you laughing yet?

If you saw a documentary called “Afghan Star,” you’re probably crying. That 2009 film (and a half-hour follow-up, “Silencing the Song,” that ran on HBO) told the story of the real TV show, an “American Idol”-style sensation in Afghanistan after the Taliban was ousted in 2001. It profiled two women who appeared on the show to great controversy, including Setara Hussainzada, who seems to be the model for this movie’s Salima. (She sang Persian pop songs, though, not British singer-songwriters.) The documentary is uplifting, heartbreaking, toe-tapping, and all the things a good movie should be. You can rent it on iTunes right now. Do that, avoid “Rock the Kasbah,” and all will be well.

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Mitch Glazer’s script for “Kasbah” dumbs down the real story — way down — into a bumptious, sloppy farce with a veneer of gender empowerment that only makes things worse. The nefarious tribesmen who oppose Salima’s father (Fahim Fazli) want to kill her for shaming their village, which ultimately results in Richie and his all-American bad boys saving the day in a pitched battle. It plays like a bad Hope and Crosby movie featuring Dorothy Lamour quoting Rumi in a burqa.

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Murray flails and fails; even the contractually obliged bit where he sings an old rock chestnut (here it’s Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home”) is a dud. The director, shockingly, is Barry Levinson, who won an Oscar for “Rain Man” several centuries ago and is now one of those sad Hollywood insiders — Rob Reiner and Lawrence Kasdan are others — coasting on the fumes of their talent. “Rock the Kasbah” is a pandering, poorly assembled botch that thinks it’s playing fair by Afghan popular culture but only manages to add insult to the countless other injuries inflicted upon that country. If it were any worse, they’d be screening it as evidence at The Hague.

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Movie Review

½

ROCK THE KASBAH

Directed by Barry Levinson.

Written by Mitch Glazer. Starring Bill Murray, Leem Lubany, Kate Hudson, Bruce Willis, Zooey Deschanel. At Boston Common, Fenway, Kendall Square, suburbs. 106 minutes. R (language, including sexual references, drug use, some violence). In English and Arabic, with subtitles.


Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.