Albert Brooks only writes/directs a movie every few years, so whenever he has a new project done, it’s a cause for celebration among his dedicated fans. However, Brooks has never had a picture that achieved mainstream box office success. That includes his most recent effort, Looking For Comedy in the Muslim World, which quickly passed in and out of theaters earlier this year. If you missed it on the big screen (and odds are you did), DVD makes a perfect platform to catch this offbeat and topical comedy.
Brooks plays himself – or at least a fictionalized version of “Albert Brooks” – and in the first scene, we see Penny Marshall turning him down as the lead in her remake of Harvey. A somewhat despondent Brooks laments the state of his career, where more people recognize him for doing the voice of a fish in Finding Nemo than for his live-action performances. (One of Brooks’s best traits is a willingness to make fun of himself.)
Then he gets a letter from the U.S. Government. A special committee headed by former Senator Fred Dalton Thompson (now, of course, an actor) has been formed to learn more about Muslims. Specifically, they want to know what makes Muslims laugh, believing that if this can be figured out, it could be an important step toward easing Middle East tensions. Thompson and his colleagues want Brooks to spend a month overseas – first in India, then in Pakistan – and write a 500-page paper on what makes Muslim people laugh. Brooks immediately wants to know if he was their first choice, and he doesn’t take it too hard when they assure him that other comedians turned them down first.
After hiring the only competent assistant he can find, Maya (Sheetal Sheth), Brooks begins interviewing people on the street, many of whom either don’t know what’s funny or don’t care to comment on it. Soon, he comes up with a brainstorm: he will stage two stand-up comedy concerts to gage audience reaction. The first, in India, is a complete disaster, with his desperate attempts at humor going way over the head of the crowd. Escalating tensions put the kibosh on the second show in Pakistan, but with the help of his government handlers (John Carroll Lynch and Jon Tenney), he manages to sneak across the border to interview a group of Pakistani comedians.
Albert Brooks is known for his hilariously dry sense of humor, and that style fits well with this material. I think if you made too broad a comedy out of this concept, it would be offensive or overbearing. By keeping it low-key, Brooks maintains a humorous sense of detachment; you can feel his character’s sense of utter confusion at trying to comprehend something as nebulous as humor in this foreign culture.
Looking For Comedy in the Muslim World is full of the filmmaker’s trademark jokes and absurd scenarios. One of my favorites involves Brooks taking a meeting at Al-Jazeera. He thinks they want to hear about his concert; actually, they have a totally different agenda in mind. Brooks also spoofs himself, with gags about Nemo, as well as several references to how bad that remake of The In-Laws was. This is really the ultimate fish-out-of-water comedy in a lot of ways. Brooks seems very aware of how people perceive him, and he goes to great lengths to put his fictional self in the least likely of situations.
While there are lots of laughs, the movie also makes some very subliminal points about culture differences. Certain types of comedy can be universal, while other types are more culture-specific. There’s no message being tossed at you here, yet part of the fun comes from watching the neurotic character try to wrap his head around this idea while worrying that maybe he’s just not as funny as he thinks.
I laughed a lot at the picture, as I always do with Albert Brooks films. Looking For Comedy in the Muslim World doesn’t hit the inspired heights of The Muse or Defending Your Life, but that might be because this is a hard topic to find humor in. There’s a risk of being politically incorrect is pretty great. You have to either be willing to walk right up to that line (not Brooks’s style) or take a more subtle, observational approach (definitely his style). While it may not be his best picture, it’s still a must-see for fans of this comic genius.
In addition to the movie itself, the DVD also contains a handful of deleted scenes, all of which are good enough to have remained in the final cut. The theatrical trailer is also included. You can find it in stores now, courtesy of Warner Home Video.
( out of four)
Looking For Comedy in the Muslim World is rated PG-13 for drug content and brief strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 39 minutes.
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