Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World
As a film reviewer, nothing presents more of a conundrum than an Albert Brooks movie. One moment I'm laughing harder than I can recall, the next I can't remember why I was laughing in the first place.
His latest endeavor, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World offers a perfect example of this writer/director/actor's cinema. The hilarious opening minutes has the comedian (who is playing himself -- arguably something he does in all of his films) bantering with Penny Marshall about starring in her latest picture, a remake of the classic Harvey (pure fiction, as far as I'm aware). The meeting doesn't go well, and Brook's knows he doesn't have the part--but a couple of jibes at Marshall and Jimmy Stewart are worth a few smiles.
Wearing his trademark discouraged-face, he returns home to his wife Emily (Amy Ryan -- no, she's not his real wife), who hands him an envelope from the US Government. Inside, he reads a mysterious letter inviting him to meet with officials in the Capitol. With the giddiness of a 3rd grade student chosen to visit the White House, Emily determines it's time for Mr. Brooks to go to Washington. After all, he doesn't have anything else to do...
Upon entering the dark boardroom at the State Department, he's met by Fred Dalton Thompson (also playing himself) and told about a new program the government is launching in order to better understand Muslim culture. Brooks figures into the project because they want someone to prepare a 500-page report on what makes Muslims laugh. Brooks' reluctance to take the assignment increases when he's told he won't get paid, however the suggestion of a possible Presidential Medal of Freedom lights up the thespian's eyes. All the same, the looming prospect of 500 pages is frightening.
Again, Brooks is hilarious while looking overwhelmed, excited, and scared to death--all at the same time.
Toting a couple of State Department employees with him, he sets off to India to begin his survey. Working from a rundown office with the help of Maya (Sheetal Sheth), an eager journalism student, the pair scour the streets of Bombay looking for English speaking Muslims willing to participate in sharing their sense of humor. The results are slow in coming, so Brooks devises a new plan: Put on a comedy show. If they can get 400 people in an auditorium, surely that will give them enough information to fill some of those 500-pages. And that's where the movie jumps off the funny train.
This centerpiece scene, with the sweating entertainer wondering if anyone will even show up, offers great anticipation as we (the movie audience) also wonder what to expect. Amazingly, the room fills to capacity, and after much ado about nothing our man begins his performance. In short order, we aren't surprised that Brook's presentation is falling flat with the Indian audience-- it's falling flat with us as well. We know why the crowd isn't laughing, and for the rest of the film we question how this man can find comedy, when he's apparently so unable to deliver it. Perhaps this flaw was intentional, because the locals are appearing funnier by the minute, while Brooks continues to wallow in uncertainty.
From a family perspective, this movie has tremendous potential to investigate a foreign culture in an informative and entertaining manner. Sadly, that also fails in the final half, when Brook's illegally crosses the Indian/Pakistan border to meet with some Pakistani comedians. This strange sequence does nothing to further the plot, and drags on (pardon the pun) when the men begin smoking an unknown drug. The only other content concerns are a dozen mild profanities--although there may have been one hushed use of "the" sexual expletive.
Although there are definitely golden moments to be found in this witty premise, I couldn't help but wonder where the comedy went during this trip to the Muslim World.