Though it doesn't quite live up to the great potential of its wonderful premise, Albert Brooks' Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (2005) is still pretty satisfying, and a big improvement over the writer-director-actor's previous film in this capacity, his only fitfully funny look at Hollywood, The Muse (1999). The picture is timely as all get-out yet has the kind of subtle characterizations and deliberate pacing of every other Albert Brooks movie. This may strike some as anachronistic in a market that now favors its comedy fast, loud, and broad, but for those of us who savor Brooks' sporadic output, it's like a breath of fresh air.
Here Albert Brooks plays Albert Brooks, an only slightly fictionalized version of himself, and the film opens on a clever note, with the sometime actor-for-hire in a disastrous casting meeting with director Penny Marshall (Penny Marshall), who's prepping a remake of Harvey. But he's doomed before even walking in the room, still trying to live down that remake of The In-Laws.
But then a unique opportunity presents itself. Brooks receives a letter from the State Department and, later, is asked by Sen. Fred Dalton Thompson (Fred Dalton Thompson) to head up a post-9/11 study "to see what makes [Muslims] laugh." At first Brooks thinks there's been some kind of mix-up - "Maybe he thinks I'm Mel Brooks" - but tempted with the vague promise of a "Medal of Freedom" and encouraged by his wife, Emily (Amy Ryan), he accepts the unusual assignment, to spend two months in India and Pakistan, and follow-up with a 500-page report. (More funny stuff follows with Brooks asking if it really has to be 500 pages, as if it were a book report for school.)
Accompanied by ineffectual State Department Agents Stewart (John Carroll Lynch), a Brooks fan, and Mark (Jon Tenney), who's not, Brooks sets up shop in a shabby New Delhi office with eager local assistant Maya (Sheetal Sheth). His plans are to prowl India and Pakistan's comedy clubs for research - only upon arrival he learns there aren't any. With that 500-page report looming, what to do?
As its title suggests, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is really two films in one, three if you factor in Brooks' own marvelous screen persona and that character's personal story. Brooks said at the time, "For so long after [9/11], whenever I heard anyone talk about Muslims, it was in association with terrorism. But I thought, what could I do in a teeny way - and believe me, it's a teeny way - to defuse this? There had to be some way to separate the 1.5 billion people who don't want to kill us from the 100,000 or so who do." Like the greatly-overrated Lost in Translation, one of the film's aims is to expose its audience to a world and people very different from the one many of us smugly and xenophobically imagine it to be.
Some of the people he approaches are curt, even racist. Others he upsets by unknowingly touching them in a manner perfectly acceptable in casual Southern California but considered rude in more formal India, while still others eagerly tell local anecdotes or turn out to be fans of The Three Stooges. "You like Larry!" Brooks says, surprised by the passerby's pick for "funniest stooge."
In this way the film is both funny and succeeds in its aim to prove that not all Muslims are turban-wearing, box-cutter-brandishing terrorists. Yet, in other ways, the picture feels a little too scripted and thus somewhat inauthentic. Though some exteriors were shot in India - there's a great gag involving the Taj Mahal worthy of Keaton - many of the people playing Indian and Pakistani citizens are American-born professional actors (including Sheth) and most of the interiors look as if they were shot on California soundstages.
While it's funny to see Brooks working in an office adjacent to one of those massive Indian call centers outsourced from myriad American companies - "Thank you for using OnStar," "Thanks for calling State Farm," and, finally, "The White House. How may I direct your call?" - one wishes, particularly since unscripted Brooks is already a naturally funny man, that he had opted to do a real documentary on the subject. It might have looked much the same, but there also could have been some delightful unplanned surprises as well, and probably therefore more compelling and real.
Also somewhat disappointing is that the film basically avoids exploring the nature of what's funny, though it effectively and deliberately explores what is not. Though perhaps in some ways unexplainable, the film might have been better had Brooks' screenplay dug deeper and offered some insight into the nature of Muslim / Indian humor vs. westerns tastes. Instead, the film steers clear of this altogether by having Brooks' character oblivious to needs of his Indian audience to have a point of reference. He bombs big-time performing some of his old shtick: a ventriloquist act that goes horribly wrong, an improv act that isn't - this is a country without ventriloquists and improv comedy to begin with. Ultimately, Brooks seems to reach the conclusion that it's basically a crapshoot: it depends upon the individual, that the same material will bomb with one audience but be embraced by another.
Despite its shortcomings, however, the film offers plenty of laughs and, as always, Brooks is frequently hilarious. There are knowing, funny observations on everything from eBay addiction to grueling transcontinental flights ("I didn't think I'd be riding Greyhound," he says). He's one of the truly great comedy writer-directors of the last 30 years despite never thus far reaching as wide an audience as he deserves, probably because his type of humor requires some effort on the part of the viewer to recognize it, rather like Jacques Tati's later films. (Brooks and Tati achieve their comedy in completely different ways, but their concerns are somewhat similar.) Like Tati (or Keaton or Sturges) Brooks may never fully be appreciated until he's old or dead, but he really is in a class with the all-time great comedy writer-directors.
Video & Audio
Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is presented in 16:9 enhanced format at 1.77:1, approximating its 1.85:1 OAR. The image has a surprising amount of edge enhancement, but looks okay. Subtitles are available in English, French, and Spanish.
An audio commentary by Brooks would have been nice, but supplements are limited to a Theatrical Trailer and a few minutes worth of Deleted Scenes.
Though it's not as insightful and honest nor as consistently funny as Brooks' best films (Modern Romance, Lost in America, Mother), Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World definitely has its moments and comes Recommended.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel.