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In Brooks' Muslim comedy the joke's really on him
By M.V. Moorhead

January 21, 2006

If you were trying to name the least likely American comedy star to crack up Muslims—or any sort of foreign audience, for that matter—Albert Brooks might come to mind.

It isn’t only an alien sensibility that prevents people from “getting” Brooks. There are plenty of Americans who don’t, either.

But there are those of us who find Brooks to be one of the funniest human beings who has ever walked the planet—funny not because he does or says funny things but funny as a property, a trait, funny like a diamond is hard or like copper conducts electricity.

If you’re in that category, then the mere title of his latest film as writer-director, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, is enough to set you giggling.

Albert Brooks plays Albert Brooks, much the way that Larry David or Jerry Seinfeld play themselves on their sitcoms. Career-stagnant and bored despite the triumph of providing the voice for Nemo’s Dad, Brooks is surprised when he’s offered a mission for the U.S. Government: travel to India and Pakistan and return with a 500-page report on “what makes Muslims laugh.”

Despite reservations about his fitness for the job—he’s a Jew, after all—he can’t resist the hint that he might be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, so off he goes to New Delhi in the company of two State Department bench players, one (John Carroll Lynch) impressed with him, the other (Jon Tenney) not so much.

He hires a sweet, eager-to-please young assistant, Maya (the delightful Sheetal Sheth), and begins his task by simply standing in the street, asking passersby what makes them laugh, while Maya writes down the answers.

Eventually the inefficiency of this approach wears him down, and he decides to stage a free stand-up concert in a school auditorium and see what shticks go over best.

Some Muslims, apparently unaware that they’re abetting the gag, have expressed outrage over the film as a racist exploitation of the stereotype of Muslims as humorless and easily outraged. But the real target of Brooks’ satire here is the same one as in every film he’s made: Albert Brooks, his weary, wounded self-absorption, his desperate vanity.

In the film’s cringe-inducing centerpiece scene, Brooks performs routines from his early stand-up days—deliberately excruciating parodies of lame ventriloquism and improvisations—for a stony audience of perplexed Indians. There can be no doubt that it’s he, not they, who’s the butt of the joke.

Whether it’s a good joke or not will, again, depend on your taste for Brooks’ gently wheedling manner. I found it riotous. But Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World has a sting to it either way. The film is politically naive in the extreme (purposely), but on a cultural level, as on a personal level, the needles are jabbing Westward, not Eastward.

From the title on, Brooks sends up American cultural nearsightedness—our absurdly monolithic idea, for instance, of “the Muslim World,” which just barely discerns that Muslims are not the same as Hindus, the majority in India.

The only two non-American characters of any substance are the charmer Maya, who appears to be a Hindu, and her Iranian boyfriend (Homie Doroodian), whose volatile jealously Brooks pointedly depicts as not really much worse, or different, than that of which any boyfriend anywhere is capable.

Without too much stretching, though, I suppose one could find a political allegory in Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World.

Dreams of glory in his head, Brooks ventures forth on a sort of comedy Crusade, but trips over his own obtuse ego. Would that all failed Crusades were this harmless.



































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