Actor/filmmaker Albert Brooks knows a lot about what's funny. In his new film, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, the very title is a joke.
Brooks, playing a fictionalized version of himself, devotes most of the film on a quest for humor in the Hindu-majority nation of India, not exactly the Islamic capitol of the world. And on top of that, Brooks doesn't really spend that much time looking for comedy, but plays a self-absorbed movie star more interested in himself than other societies.
Brooks does all of this on purpose, deliberately making himself the butt of his comedy and creating an ironic gulf between the film's title and its outcome. But just because those are Brooks' intentions, that doesn't make Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World a joke worth cracking. Brooks takes a potentially explosive premise and douses it before it can even shoot a spark.
Amid his disheartening career playing Hollywood politics (Brooks takes a humiliating meeting with Penny Marshall in the first scene), actual politics come knocking at his door. An "official" U.S. task force led by former Sen. Fred Dalton Thompson (playing himself) enlists Brooks to discover what makes the Muslim people laugh. Thompson admits that America's usual methods for finding out about other cultures, "fighting and spying on them," haven't been panning out.
Promised an official Medal of Honor, Brooks agrees and sets off for India and Pakistan, never getting much of an answer to the question, "Why India?" (Perhaps Brooks' real-world insurers balked at shooting the film in Iran or Afghanistan.) The scenes in New Delhi begin with promise: Brooks' temporary office is next to a cheap phone bank that apparently outsources tech support from every major U.S. institution, from State Farm to the White House. And then -- well, not much of anything happens. Brooks hires a translator (Sheetal Sheth), questions passers-by on New Delhi's bustling streets and mostly wrings his hands over how he'll fill a 500-page official report on his findings. Brooks decides to take India's comedic temperature by putting on a stand-up act and seeing what they laugh at, leading to embarrassing attempts at ventriloquism and sweater-based puns on "Kashmir."
Brooks wants to make us cringe, and made similar fun of himself in 1979's Real Life, which anticipated reality television with uncanny accuracy. Here he casts himself as the quintessential Ugly American, a typical member of a narcissistic nation unwilling to relate to other nationalities even when security and self-interest depend on it. Absorbed in one kvetchy conversation, Brooks breezes right past the Taj Mahal and never notices it. There's a valid theme in the notion that 9/11 didn't open our country's eyes as much as it should have.
But when Brooks puts on preposterous Indian costumes (including pointy Aladdin shoes) to "fit in," we balk at the idea that he could be so dense. He comes across as too perceptive and seasoned to convincingly play such an oblivious fool. On "Curb Your Enthusiasm," Larry David persuasively portrays his on-screen alter ego as a curmudgeon with a compulsion to stamp on other people's toes. Brooks' blinkered attitudes and contrived adventures become increasingly contrived. In the film's final act, Brooks sneaks across the Pakistani border to meet some Muslim comedians (potheads who don't speak English) and eventually sets off an international incident of staggering lameness that even Jerry Lewis would find over the top.
Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World leaves us knowing no more about Muslims at the end than we did going in. Brooks knows the ins and outs of the entertainment industry -- a mixed-up meeting with Al-Jazeera indicates that stupid showbiz pitches are universal -- but the filmmaker seems unwilling to really teach himself about laughter and Islam. A documentary in which he really did look for comedy in the Muslim world may have built some genuine bridges between cultures. Instead, Brooks spent his considerable comedic gifts to construct a dead end.