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Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 01/19/06 22:47:21

"An unsteady but still very funny Brooks effort."
3 stars (Just Average)

Albert Brooks is such a comedy god that he can take an underdeveloped idea like “Looking For Comedy In the Muslim World” and make it funny. The film has plenty of problems - too long in some spots, too short in others, story flaws abound - and the fact that Brooks wrote and directed it probably contradicts the argument that he’s saved the film. And yet he has: his dry wit and willingness to tackle the uncomfortable keep the comedy rolling when the underlying story fails.

That story finds Brooks playing himself; he’s been asked by the State Department to join a project (Fred Dalton Thompson, also playing himself in one of the film’s cleverest moments) in which the U.S. government can better understand the Muslim people by finding out what makes them laugh. And so Brooks is off to spend a month in India and Pakistan, interviewing the locals and eventually deciding to put on a show: Brooks will pay attention to which jokes get laughs and which ones don’t.

The big question, of course, is: why India? The script goes out of its way to explain that while India is a mostly Hindu nation, you can also find a few hundred million Muslims there. But it’s a stretch - why not Saudi Arabia? Kuwait? Iraq? (OK, so that last one has a good reason against it.) Sure, Brooks gets to head into Pakistan for a few minutes of screen time, but it’s barely anything.

The best answer I can guess (aside from the “India is a friendly, safe place” angle) is that it’s not actually about the Muslim world, but any world outside the U.S. The main point of the movie is to show just how ignorant of the rest of the globe Americans can be. You can argue that the government sends Brooks to India instead of Saudi Arabia because it’s Muslim enough to count (as in “hey, close enough for government work”), and you can argue that the jokes to be had at Brooks’ failure to grasp cultural differences would work anywhere. The Muslim angle merely goes to express a post-9/11 strain America has on foreign relations (and, of course, to kick up some sharp punchlines about bureaucratic stuffiness and international tensions), but it is not the key to the story and its message.

Working on that idea of cultural ignorance, Brooks builds up to the film’s centerpiece, a stand-up comedy concert that goes remarkably, incredibly, jaw-droppingly wrong. The joke here is that Brooks fails to realize that in order to poke fun at ventriloquism and improvisation, the audience should probably have a general clue as to what those two things are. (Jokes about Halloween fail to fly as well.) The result is something that fans of awkward silence-as-comedy will find absolutely wonderful: watching Brooks struggle with the increasingly empty reactions from the crowd (and, in some cases, getting so worked up within his routine that he fails to notice such emptiness) is a giddy delight. Even when the scene goes on a pinch longer than it probably should, Brooks’ nervous performance keeps us chuckling.

Brooks is, of course, a master of the Nervous Fool routine, so much so that even his lesser gags generate a laugh or two just from his well-timed reactions. This is a movie that revels in pauses, the look of the film matching Brooks’ own comic timing.

But at 98 minutes, “Looking For Comedy” feels a bit too short. Brooks could have trimmed the concert scene, sure, but he also could have given us so much more with his dutiful assistant (the lovely Sheetal Sheth), who begins the film as a one-dimensional straight woman (she doesn’t get Brooks’ sarcasm) but evolves into someone far more interesting (as we meet her boyfriend and learn about her life). Just as her story picks up speed, the film abruptly ends; why couldn’t we keep it going?

Likewise, we could have used much more in Pakistan. As it is, the Pakistan scenes serve only to put a big, dopey joke into play (both countries suspect Brooks of being a spy for the other). Here, Brooks could have shown us more cultural differences - or, perhaps, shown us how India and Pakistan are more alike than we (and they) might think. With the brevity it has now, however, it lacks the payoff it might have had.

And yet none of this really matters, because Brooks is here to keep everything funny throughout. No matter where the storyline stumbles, Brooks is there to toss us a joke and keep us laughing; the quibbles only arrive after the credits have run. Plot-wise, “Looking For Comedy” might have its problems, but humor-wise, this is Brooks working in peak form. See it if only to see that one magnificent concert gone wrong. It’s a bit only Brooks at his most nervous could get right.

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