How can a movie with this kind of daring premise and multigenerational hipster cast — Bill Murray, Zooey Deschanel, and Kate Hudson — turn so gloppy and patronizing? Easy. Barry Levinson directed it. It was almost guaranteed that the Levinson touch would dull the satiric edge of this alleged comic romp through the country today beset with American meddling, the Taliban, skirmishes on the Pakistan border, and an earthquake. Now Afghanis must endure scrutiny by the man who made pacifism boring with Toys. Sure, Levinson in his prime made Good Morning, Vietnam, bundling war’s miseries and cozy humanism under an antic façade. (Would Rock the Kasbah have been good if Robin Williams starred in it?) But Levinson hasn’t been memorable for a long time, and even with anarchic Murray, he’s lost in vast sands here.
Murray himself hasn’t exactly been glorious lately (Wes Anderson films excepted), and this one is more like St. Vincent than Zombieland. He stars as a desperate agent named Richie Lanz tricked into taking his latest find, Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel), to Afghanistan to entertain the troops. Sordid misadventures ensue, until Ronnie deserts Richie, taking his cash, wallet, and passport, stranding him in downtown War-zonia with only a pair of sleazy American arms dealers to help out.
Maybe it sounds like the grist for 100 satirical mills, but all Levinson and his screenwriter Mitch Glazer (Scrooged) can manage is a halfhearted wrestling match between a beautiful and talented Pashtun woman and her warlord papa to allow her to perform on the Afghani version of The Voice. In executing said plot, Murray and company manage to score a few points about Islamic sexism and the futility of war, but not before making the people of the country seem buffoonish and American culture seem infinitely superior. Maybe the country that successfully resisted Alexander the Great, the Mongols, and British, Russian, and American imperialism for thousands of years is not immune to satire. But its living people deserve something less arid than this.