Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World

on January 20, 2006 by Wade Major
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With a provocative title like "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World," it's easy to get caught up in juicy expectations of taboo-busting, politically incorrect humor -- a comedic tonic for a war-weary post-9/11 world. Unfortunately, that's not the kind of humor at which Albert Brooks excels, and the attempt here yields a mismatch of filmmaker and subject matter that proves increasingly problematic as it drags on. This may, in fact, be Brooks' first real career misstep, a case of life imitating art imitating life in which his fruitless on-screen fish-out-of-water search for comedy seems only to underscore how fully out of his element he is in trying to make a movie of it.

For the second time in his career, Brooks plays himself, salvaged from a professional lull when actor and former senator Fred Thompson relays an official government request that he spend a month in India and Pakistan working up a 500-page report on what makes Muslims laugh. The next hour, nearly all of which is spent in India, turns out to be an uneven and often painful exercise in pointlessness, with Brooks struggling to extract even the faintest chuckle from the ever-stoic Indians. Accompanied by a pair of State Department stiffs (John Carrol Lynch and Jon Tenney) and an eager and enthusiastic Indian assistant (Sheetal Sheth), he has no shortage of straight-men -- it's the jokes that are in short supply. A late-in-the-game subplot in which Indian and Pakistani intelligence officials both start to key in on Brooks' activities as evidence that the other may be up to something is a classic case of too little, too late -- a contrived sitcom convention meant to give shape and direction to a movie which, until that time, had none.

This isn't to say that the picture doesn't have its moments, nor that Brooks has lost his touch -- rarely has he been this earnest or charmingly neurotic. It's the plot that simply fails to furnish any opportunities for the character. And while it's impossible to say for certain, the absence of Brooks' longtime writing partner, Monica Johnson, could also be a factor -- this is only the second of his eight films as a director which he has written solo (1991's "Defending Your Life" being the first), and the lack of a counterbalancing voice, like those provided by Sharon Stone and Debbie Reynolds in, respectively, "The Muse" and "Mother," is significant.

If there's a broad summation to be found for the picture's failings it is that it never really delivers on the promise of the title -- it's one thing to search for comedy in the Muslim world, and entirely another to search for it among the Muslims of the Hindu world. But even then, Brooks isn't so much looking for indigenous comedy as he is attempting to import his brand of American comedy. Indeed, this may be the one "foreign adventure" on which both conservatives and liberals agree -- it's time to bring Albert Brooks back home. Starring Albert Brooks, Sheetal Seth, Fred Dalton Thompson, John Carroll Lynch and Jon Tenney. Directed and written by Albert Brooks. Produced by Herbert Nanas. A Warner Independent release. Comedy. Rated PG-13 for drug content and brief strong language. Running time: 98 min

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