Clichéd, enervating, insulting — it’s tough to settle on a single pejorative for “Rock the Kasbah,” though abysmal might do. Crammed with performers who apparently didn’t read the script before signing on, the movie offends your intelligence on every level, starting with its use of Afghanistan as a Western playground. And it does so while trying to pump laughs from the threat of beheadings and honor killings alongside crude yuks about bedding Danielle Steel — questionable fodder made worse partly by some colossal bad timing: President Obama recently announcedthat American troops would remain, through 2017, in Afghanistan, where the Taliban has made a comeback and the so-called Islamic State is on the rise.
Mitch Glazer wrote the script and Barry Levinson directed, and each presumably called in a few favors to fill out the cast. Bill Murray, who starred in “Scrooged,” co-written by Mr. Glazer, here plays Richie Lanz, a dead-ended music promoter and one of those putative lovable losers who are more adored by filmmakers than the rest of us. Marooned in a dusty corner of Los Angeles, Richie has a hot-cha-cha assistant who’s also an aspiring singer and is played by an ill-served Zooey Deschanel in raccoon eye makeup and animal-print leggings. One minute they’re wisecracking in La-La Land; the next they’re sweating in Kabul, set to entertain the troops. High jinks ensue.
The filmmakers appear to be trying for the kind of comedy that infused “M*A*S*H” and, to a lesser extent, “Good Morning, Vietnam,” which Mr. Levinson directed. “Good Morning, Vietnam” centers on a disc jockey (played by Robin Williams) who is changed by his tenure in Vietnam; “M*A*S*H” zeroes in on doctors and nurses who, during the Korean War, keep insanity more or less at bay with gallows humor while up to their necks in battlefield blood. “Kasbah” isn’t remotely on the level of either; its laughs die mid-delivery, and there’s no sense that anyone is interested in what conflict does to the soul. In each of those earlier films, war has some kind of meaning.
There’s nothing truly at stake for Richie, who first goofs around with some tired wartime types, including a smiley, servile local (Arian Moayed); a mercenary (Bruce Willis — what a waste!); a happy hooker (Kate Hudson); and two giddy, gonzo arms dealers (Scott Caan and Danny McBride). In time, Richie also sets off on an adventure that allows him to play the big hero-savior while earning a few bucks. His means to both is a Pashtun songbird, Salima (Leem Lubany), whom he places on a television competition, “Afghan Star” (a real show). Sure, her father and others disapprove of this public display by a young woman. But like many outsiders, Richie believes that he knows what Afghans really want — and, like this movie, he delivers imperialism with a smile.
“Rock the Kasbah” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Gunplay, bombs and other wartime violence. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.