The problems begin with the title, but not because of any hot controversy over stereotypes or offensive material. If you're "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World," as Brooks purports to do, then you'd expect that the focus of the movie would be on what Muslims find funny, or on Muslim comedians, or on--get this--what's funny in the Muslim world. There are few such delightful insights here.
Brooks--a veteran comedic actor who's starred in "Mother," "Broadcast News," and as the voice of Marlin in "Finding Nemo"--turns on his classic whiny, momma's boy, Jewish shtick in "Looking for Comedy." As always, the persona is humorous (if you like that sort of thing), especially as it draws out the bafflement of the Indians who meet him. But it soon wears thin.
The premise has potential: Brooks, playing himself, is summoned to Washington, D.C., by Sen. Fred Thompson (also playing himself) to head up a new diplomatic mission: Find what makes Muslims laugh, because obviously the government isn't getting anywhere with brute force. Brooks is wary of the job, especially with the daunting task of producing a 500-page report (this joke is done to death), but the idea of receiving a Medal of Freedom proves too tempting.
But after this juicy idea is presented, the movie immediately begins to stall. First off, the Washington commission has Brooks going to India and Pakistan for a month to answer the humor question. India? Isn't that predominantly a Hindu country, Brooks knowledgeably asks?
There's 150 million Muslims in India, he's told by the commission. And that's more than enough. With that, Brooks is off to India to spin his comedic wheels before traveling to Pakistan. (This utterly inane notion that going to India is the best way of finding comedy in the "Muslim world" sidesteps the real problems Brooks had in getting permission to film in a Muslim country. But the film doesn't reveal this backstory,and so the audience is left in the dark.)
After trying numerous unsuccessful man-on-the-street interviews (asking busy Indians, "What makes you laugh?") and learning that there are no comedy clubs for him to observe, Brooks decides to put on "The Big Show" and perform a variety of bits in front of an Indian audience to see what makes them laugh.
So, let me get this straight. Are we looking for comedy in the Indian world, or the Muslim world?
Albert Brooks starring in "That Darn Jew?"
Read more on page 2 >>
It's all hurriedly wrapped up when Brooks's travels inadvertently escalate tension between the two countries and he is whisked back home without learning much of anything. Neither Brooks--nor the audience--makes any headway into finding out what Muslims find funny.
In one clever scene, Al Jazeera (the Arab world's CNN) asks for a meeting with Brooks, only to tell him that they'd like him to be the star of a new Arab sitcom, roughly translated as "That Darn Jew." Another running joke about India's growing status as the outsourced call-center to all U.S. companies and agencies is also funny, but soon beaten into the ground by repetition.
The bright spot in this comedic drag is Brooks' assistant Maya (Sheetal Seth), whose wide-eyed portrayal of an intelligent, progressive Indian woman who doesn't get Brooks's brand of funny, speaks volumes about the current Indian attitude toward anything American: That the country is all ego (which constantly needs stroking) and little substance.
In a way, Brooks's classic comedic persona, which fails to discover what Muslims--or Indians for that matter--find funny, does succeed in showcasing the self-absorbed American attitudes that can emerge when visiting foreign countries. Brooks invites you to be annoyed with his "American-ness" when he demands star treatment and rags on typical aspects of Indian life, like the streets crowded with cars, bicycle taxis, pedestrians, and cows.
In the end, we learn more about Indian attitudes and what life is really like in the country than we do about comedy. No stereotypes of clueless Indians stuck in poverty here. India, in this movie, is as much about its hustling urbanity as its rural population. That is one good thing that Brooks achieves with the film: Giving a true taste of Indian life in the now.
Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the brief scenes in Pakistan. The Pakistanis find Brooks's comedic styling hilarious, but they're high at the time. But maybe that's an intentional joke about needing to be high to find Brooks funny. Could he be poking fun at himself?
Brooks really does put himself out there in this movie. He wants you to be annoyed with him, to find him unfunny, but unfortunately even this is lost in jokes that are bad enough be annoying, but not bad enough to look deliberately stupid. His intentions are good, but he lets an interesting premise get pushed aside for a study in pretentious American attitudes in a foreign country.
Really, nothing much is discovered or learned about comedy in the Muslim world--and, as Brooks admitted in various interviews, the movie was never intended to do so. Then why call it "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World"? That title may bring the audience--and especially curious Muslims--in to the theaters. But they won't learn much, nor will they laugh much.