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Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World

Brooks Finds It, If Only Temporarily

In Looking For Comedy in the Muslim World, writer/director Albert Brooks (The Muse, Defending Your Life, Lost in America) plays "Albert Brooks", or rather the persona Brooks has developed over several decades as a performer, an insecure, self-deprecating fellow burdened with a lifetime of insecurities, self-consciousness and more than a bit of egocentric obliviousness. The clueless, befuddled Brooks is the punchline to his own joke. A great deal of Brooks' humor comes from seeing a stumbling Brooks in uncomfortable, discomforting situations, usually making things worse. In Brooks the well-meaning bumbler, we see a reflection of ourselves (a part of ourselves we prefer not to acknowledge, at least not openly).

The title alone suggests that Looking For Comedy in the Muslim World is a documentary, but it's not. The film is more or less a conventional "fish-out-of-water" comedy, with the lead character, "Albert Brooks", attempting, and most likely failing, in learning something from his experiences (that he ultimately is meant to say something about Americans and their myopic approach to non-Western cultures). Cue the first scene: Brooks meets up with director Penny Marshall (A League of Their Own, Big) for the lead in a remake of Harvey, a 1949 comedy with Jimmy Stewart as the perpetually inebriated central character whose best friend just happens to be a six-foot tall rabbit. Marshall is looking for the next Jimmy Stewart for the remake. Not surprisingly, the meeting goes badly. A distressed Brooks returns home to his sympathetic wife. A registered letter from the United Department of State initiates an anxious moment, which turns to puzzlement when Brooks discovers he's been invited to Washington, D.C. and a meeting with a secretive commission.

The commission, led by former actor-turned-senator-turned-actor-again Fred Dalton Thompson, invites Brooks to go on a fact-finding mission for them to the Muslim world (actually India and Pakistan). In exchange for a brief, 500-page report, a Medal of Freedom is dangled as an inducement (pay seems limited to expenses and a per diem). Brooks is given two state department handlers, Stuart (John Carrol Lynch) and Mark (Jon Tenney), who mishandle everything from Brooks' seating on the transcontinental flight to the office they promise Brooks in New Delhi. There, Brooks interviews potential assistants, eventually settling on Maya (Sheetal Sheth), a super-qualified college graduate.

Brooks begins his "mission" with Maya, teaching her the meaning of sarcasm, and quickly moves on to man- or woman-on-the-streets interviews. He fails to get what he needs from the interviews and discovers, to his displeasure, that neither India nor Pakistan have comedy clubs. Brooks' can-do spirit gets the better of him, so he decides to perform a comedy routine of his greatest hits in front of an all-Indian audience. He calls it the "Big Show". From there, Looking For Comedy in the Muslim World takes a turn into mild, satirical farce, with Brooks' behavior cause for concern for the powers-that-be in India and Pakistan.

Brooks, using his persona to mostly good effect, is attempting something more serious with Looking For Comedy in the Muslim World. From his mis-titled misadventures (a better name would have been "Exporting Brooksian Comedy to India, With a Four-Hour Layover in Pakistan"), it becomes clear that Brooks wants to critique America's misguided, uninformed or misinformed attitude toward the Muslim world. Brooks the character believes in the universality of humor with the fervor of a religious leader, but he soon learns that comedy is culture-specific, with the exception of physical comedy (e.g., one interviewee lists the Three Stooges as his favorite comedians). Brooks' self-deprecating humor, tends toward the gentle or mild. He might be an object of scorn and derision, but he's also a sympathetic character (wishful thinking perhaps, at least where real Americans and the Muslim world are concerned).

Like most contemporary comedies, Looking For Comedy in the Muslim World eventually loses momentum, both narratively (expected) and comedy-wise (the jokes lose their sting). The post-"Big Show" scenes drag, with the notable exception of the circumstances of Brooks' clandestine visit to Pakistan, where, in a moment of wish fulfillment, Brooks finally finds the eager, grateful audience he's been searching for all along (even then, he needs the help of a translator to recount his jokes to his audience). That loss of momentum is only partially regained by the sharp turn into power politics and farce, but Brooks does little with the unexpected fallout of his visit to India and Pakistan; however, it's worth a good joke at the end of the film, though, as Brooks' family and friends celebrate his return to Los Angeles.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars