Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (2006)

2006-01-20 (Limited release)

Despite its title, Albert Brooks’ new movie, like all his movies, is about his world. While the comedian makes typically deadpan jokes premised on the differences between his experience and the imagined populations beyond his shores, and journeys to India and briefly across the border to Pakistan in search of “comedy,” the film’s primary punch line has to do with the Brooks character finding that he resides in his own world wherever he goes.

Like the Brooks character (here he plays “himself,” though it’s much like the character he plays in every movie), this punch line is a familiar one. And in this case, the punch line is pertinent, even politically savvy, given the set-up. It’s not very funny,

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World begins squarely in Brooks’ province, where he’s looking for work. He takes a meeting with Penny Marshall, who, after two or here minutes, rejects him as the star of her next project, a Harvey remake. “I don’t want to go a Jewish way,” she tells her assistants before he even enters the room. When he gets home, Brooks frets. “It’s a cruel world, honey” he tells his eBay-distracted wife (Amy Ryan), just before he opens a registered letter from the State Department. Again, he worries, this time about the changes in his world since 9/11: he only visited that al-Qaeda website once, for a few minutes, he moans, “just ’cause I was curious.”

Summoned to DC (under a jazzed up version of “America the Beautiful”), Brooks learns he’s been chosen to venture forth into “the Muslim world” to find out what makes those people laugh. He’s supposed to go to the Middle East for a month, do research, and return with a 500-page report (typically, it’s this expectation of this massive report that alarms him: “Don’t worry,” he’s told, “They never read ’em, they weigh ’em”). Not that Brooks takes the mission lightly. Indeed, Fred Dalton Thompson, doing duty as “liaison” between DC and Hollywood, frames the assignment as a matter of some urgency. “The world is in a precarious state,” he says, full of “people we don’t understand.” Because the usual tactics — spying and fighting — aren’t working out so well, the State Department is hoping to find another way to gain control of the planet.

After hearing he might be awarded the Medal of Freedom for his efforts, Brooks agrees (his wife is thrilled, thinking he’ll become the “Henry Kissinger of Comedy”). And from the start, his trip is rife with the sorts of hijinks, awkward pauses, throwaways, and ba-dump-bump jokes that usually take up time in his movies. Disturbed that he’s flying coach to New Delhi with the two agents assigned to look after him, Stuart (John Carroll Lynch) and Mark (Jon Tenney), Brooks is informed, “Bureaucracy sometimes screws up.” Now that he’s an official representative of the U.S., Brooks will learn just how true this is.

He also learns that his own reputation is limited beyond is wildest dreams. The only project anyone’s heard of is Finding Nemo (so popular that representatives from al-Jazeera call him in for a meeting, hoping to get him to star in a new sitcom the station is planning, “That Darn Jew”), which means that most of his interviewees gaze on him blankly, enduring his vague fast-talk shtick because they’re polite. Smiling helpfully, Brooks’ eager assistant and translator Maya (Sheetal Sheth) writes down what everyone says, which is not much. The 500 pages loom larger at the close of each day.

And so Brooks decides to deliver comedy to the Muslim world, performing his own routine (while wearing local costume) in order to measure whether it makes the inhabitants laugh. The routine, performed first at an Indian school auditorium (sans air conditioning or a dressing room — he prepares in a tepee set up outside the building), is cobbled together from previous Brooks’ shows, including a bit with a ventriloquist’s dummy (though his performance is not even close to ventriloquizing, a joke that wears thin in about 30 seconds). As his audience looks bored and restless, fanning themselves and checking their watches, he bumbles ahead, illustrating and parodying the superciliousness of U.S. attempts at cultural “outreach.”

This is the usual trick of Brooks’ comedy. His persona is pretty much unmovable, which means he’s not looking for comedy anywhere. Rather, the movie shows the process by which a cultural bully, hopelessly ignorant if endearingly well-intentioned, stomps his way through all environments, never quite hearing, let alone comprehending, what’s going on around him. Brooks’ approximation of a “listening tour” takes him from the school auditorium (which he reads a success, despite the lack of laughter) to a stealth meeting with aspiring Pakistani comedians just over the border (another bureaucratic error means he doesn’t have a visa for a legitimate, daylight trip to Pakistan).

Swathed in a kaffiyeh and running the same routine he used in India, Brooks judges his second performance a resounding success, as his non-English-speaking “students,” happily high before he gets there, sit around a campfire and treat him like the god of comedy he believes himself to be. While Brooks proceeds in his bull-in-a-china-shop manner, administrations on both sides of the India-Pakistan border read his movements as signs of espionage and danger, mounting their missiles and taking their militaries to the brink of war. Brooks remains blithely unaware of his broader effects, emulating the nation he represents. And in this way, intentionally or not, the mostly unfunny Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World makes its point.