Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World
2005Director: Albert Brooks
Cast: Albert Brooks, Sheetal Sheth, John Carroll Lynch
owhere near as controversial as the title suggests, nor as probing or insightful as one would hope, Albert Brooks’s new film, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, exists in its own self-contained universe of benign humor. It’s almost fitting that a film devoted to the futility of defining humor amongst a foreign people would itself find it difficult to hit its own comedic mark.
It’s not that the film contains no humor whatsoever, but it never finds an uproarious stride. Brooks seems far more content to play it safe; to maintain a certain balance that thankfully never crosses the line into the vulgar or obscene (or for that matter, the downright offensive), but at the same time, doesn’t take the chances it needs to really succeed. This method yields mixed results, as he crafts a film, at once, too pleasant to viciously hate yet too slight to enthusiastically recommend. The movie more or less exists to be mildly enjoyed, but quickly forgotten.
The setup is amusing enough: The State Department summons an out-of-work Brooks (playing himself, of course) to assist them in a new Government program. Brooks, who has just been passed over for the James Stewart role in a remake of Harvey (this scene involves some wonderful self-deprecating humor in which everyone agrees that Brooks is decidedly NOT the next James Stewart), sees this as an opportunity, but remains pensive as he cannot imagine why the government would require his assistance. Upon his arrival in Washington, he discovers the answer to be not quite what he expected. The Administration has grown tired of the old methods of dealing with the situation in the Middle East (bombing, spying, nation building—you know, the usual) and have decided to pursue a new avenue of influence overseas. They believe that a possible way to reach the people of the Muslim world is to understand what makes them laugh. This is where Brooks comes in. Why Brooks specifically? As the bureau chairman puts it: He was the only comic not currently employed.
Brooks takes to the idea, and finds it especially encouraging when a potential Medal of Honor is mentioned. The one factor that bothers him (and remains so throughout the rest of the film) is that they require him to submit a 500-page report on his findings. As Brooks remarks, for a person who wrote, at most, a fifteen-page paper in College, 500 is quite an intimidating number. But one agent reassures him that most reports aren’t quite that long… more like 400 or 450. Needless to say, Brooks isn’t entirely relieved by this.
From here, the film follows a predictable course. Brooks heads off to India accompanied by two agents where, despite the large Hindu population, he has been assured that 10% of the people are in fact Muslims. There he hires an Indian secretary named Maya (Sheetal Sheth) who assists him in collecting data. Their process consists mostly of walking around New Delhi asking people what makes them laugh, at which point the film could’ve really blossomed into something extraordinary. The setup sustains a strong comic undertone, hinting at something even more hilarious to develop. But once Brooks reaches his destination, the jokes remain mild. S
Still, there are a few very big laughs. One involves how Mel Gibson might deal with an applicant who lied about her typing abilities; the other an Al- Jazeera proposed sitcom whose title roughly translates as “That Darn Jew!” Beyond such moments, the film simply scuttles along, content to merely amuse us without leaving us in stitches. Looking for Comedy doesn’t have any real focus, and when you get right down to it, doesn’t really require any. When Brooks attempts to attach some tangible plot to his film—his presence in India and Pakistan is misinterpreted as an American conspiracy resulting in a massive call to arms by both nations—the results are disastrous.
The film’s true strength lies in its depiction of our general ignorance of Middle Eastern culture. Brooks represents a quintessential American approach to foreign policy. His methods are direct, egocentric, and devoid of any real desire to penetrate beyond the surface of the problem. In the end, he leaves the area with no more understanding than when he arrived, and with no real conclusion to his efforts. That doesn’t prevent his family and friends from providing him with a hero’s welcome upon his return to Los Angeles. Wouldn’t be the first time: Mission Accomplished, Mr. Brooks.