Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World
Directed by Albert Brooks. Starring Albert Brooks, Amy Ryan, Sheetal Sheth, Emma Lockhart, Homie Doroodian, Jon Tenney, John Carroll Lynch. (2006, PG-13, 98 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Jan. 20, 2006
Perhaps only Albert Brooks, the master of angst-ridden comic self-doubt and oblivious boorishness, would have dared envision a comedy that, just as its point-blank title states, searches vainly for yucks in one of the most politically volcanic and cordite-scented flash points of the world. That he’s a Jew only adds to the increasingly ludicrous setup, and so when Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World peters out around the halfway mark, you can’t help but wonder if Brooks has bitten off more falafel than he can swallow. Previous Brooks films – his great opening salvo, Real Life, and 1991’s Defending Your Life, in particular – thrust Brooks’ menschy, can’t-do nebbish into the real and romantic worlds with both sage and comic observations. More recent stumbles, like the godawful The Muse, seem calculated to make non-Hollywood audiences squirm. While nothing in Looking for Comedy is as joyless as all that, it’s still a wildly uneven ride that never delivers on its inherent promise of giving Yankee xenophobia the shellacking it so duly deserves. Brooks plays a version of himself, first seen being roundly dismissed by Penny Marshall for the Jimmy Stewart role in her upcoming remake of Harvey (although you can just see him – or not, as the case may be – as the titular hare), then receiving an unexpected call to glory from the U.S. government (in the form of real-life politician Fred Thompson), who asks him to travel to India and Pakistan to discover what, if anything, makes Muslims chuckle. There’s a hitch, of course: Brooks must file a 500-word report upon his return, a seemingly mammoth undertaking that forms the quietly hysterical underpinning of this doomed undertaking. Shepherded by a pair of State Department lackeys (Tenney and Lynch) and a vivaciously game interpreter (Sheth), the Innocent Abroad travels to New Delhi and discovers that a) Polish jokes work the world over, and b) shit jokes bomb in India. Shuttled from one disastrous attempt at intersocial bonding to another, Brooks eventually hits on the idea of renting a hall and performing his own version of stand-up before a mass audience; woe unto him, his comic-intellectual deconstruction of the Western comic mainstays of improv and ventriloquism dies a lonely onstage death in a sea of polite coughs and onscreen squirming. The predictable end results of Brooks’ fictional mission are the border flare-ups that arise among rival nations and the occasional smart gefilte fish-out-of-water gag (Al-Jazeera offers him a sitcom titled That Darn Jew!), but for all its presumed bravado, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is an essentially toothless affair, poking fun at American imperialism and its attendant cluelessness while never illuminating much beyond the obvious.