Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World

Jan 25, 2006 at 12:00 am

For a while there, it seemed like Albert Brooks would give Woody Allen a run for his money. Though not nearly as prolific, Brooks' first four films (Real Life, Modern Romance, Lost in America and Defending Your Life) were minor masterpieces, exploiting his trademark angst to brilliant comedic effect and offering humor that was uncomfortable and incisive. But over the last decade or so, the director-screenwriter-actor's output as a filmmaker slowed and his work lost its luster. Mother and The Muse had some moments but failed to match the wit and invention of his earlier films.

Now, after seven years, Brooks returns with Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World. This time he drops the pretense of character and simply plays himself — arguably the only role he's ever played. Hired by the American government, Brooks travels to Pakistan and India to find out what makes Muslim people laugh, and to better understand Islamic culture.

It's a great premise for a comedy; an abortive audition with Penny Marshall, Brook's initial contact with the State Department, and his attempts to find a suitable assistant in India are all quite funny. But then, mysteriously, it all goes awry. Taking to the streets, the comedian seemingly abandons his script and conducts improvised interviews with the locals. As might be expected, the humor turns out to be hit or miss. From here, any semblance of a well-crafted comedy disappears.

There are endless bits about how American humor doesn't translate, including a "concert" where Brooks performs classic routines from his stand-up days to a bewildered audience, a part about his beautiful assistant (Sheetal Sheth) and her struggles with a jealous boyfriend, and an inadvertent showdown between Pakistan and India — but it doesn't add up to anything. Brooks strains the neurotic fish-out-of-water routine without focusing his story — or bothering to write many jokes. For 100 minutes we're dragged from one vaguely comic sequence to the next until it all comes to an abrupt end. Oddly, no real conclusion is ever drawn about the state of comedy in the Muslim world.

Worse still, the film is stripped of any political content. Given the state of the world today there would seem to be an endless supply of comedic targets, but Brooks avoids nearly all of them, which makes you wonder: Why bother? It's shocking that the same man who so brilliantly skewered network television in the early SNL days could deliver such a toothless and unfunny film.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].