Too provocatively titled for its first distributor, Albert Brooks’s Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is nothing if not high-concept. This is the most self-reflexive of
Hollywood’s post–9-11 movies—wondering, as it does, just what exactly the patriotic entertainment industry can do to help make things right.
Looking for Comedy crypto-sequel to Brooks’s Real Life, a meta-act in which Brooks plays himself—as a failure. He’s introduced attempting to audition for the real Penny Marshall, casting a remake of Harvey. When she hears who’s next, her displeasure is evident. “I don’t want to go a Jewish way,” she tells her staff. War-on-terror paranoia or simply social realism? This is the first time the J-word has appeared in a Brooks movie—let alone been used to characterize his persona. But the subject at hand ensures it won’t be the last.
As far back as Stand Up and Cheer (1934), Hollywood proposed a “Department of Entertainment.” Now, possibly confused with Mel Brooks, if not Steven Spielberg, Albert is summoned to Washington, D.C., to meet with former senator Fred Thompson (playing himself) and take a role in the government’s plan to “instrumentalize laughter.” Specifically, he is to travel to South Asia to determine the Muslim sense of humor. The suggestion is that the idea came from George W. Bush: “The president has a pretty darn good sense of humor.” (And he does appreciate happy news.)
Thompson hypnotizes Albert by dangling a Medal of Freedom before his eyes, even as he confounds him with the need to write a 500-page report. The mildly Kafkaesque situation, with Albert obsessing over the report (as he will in his inimitable fashion, for the remainder of the movie), is heightened when he is shown flying coach to India in the company of two cheerfully incompetent State Department aides, obviously modeled on K.’s helpers in The Castle. Set up in a shabby office in a building full of outsourced call banks, Brooks stages his own casting call, looking for an assistant—who isn’t a Mel Gibson fan and doesn’t realize that he’s a Jew.
Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is predicated on the absence of Muslim comedians—although somehow The New York Times manages to report on the phenomenon every six months. Baffled by the local TV and defeated in his attempts at on-the-street interviews, Albert decides to organize a comedy concert—handing out flyers on the streets of Old Delhi (a most flavorsome location). In the movie’s lengthy set piece, Albert appears in a school auditorium, absurdly dressed in native garb to greet his supremely unresponsive audience with a resolution to discover “what makes you guys chuckle.” The act, partly derived from Brooks’s old routines, is doomed to bomb—all the more spectacularly once Albert moves into conceptual territory with fake ventriloquism and faux improv.
The humor in Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is so dry that those expecting boffo yuks might well be looking for water in the desert. Moreover, the movie is complicated by two paradoxes—one annoyingly obvious, the other fascinatingly implicit. The first is the use of India, which, although home to 150 million Muslims, has six times as many Hindus; the second is that Brooks’s comic sensibility travels so badly. Woody Allen may bestride the world like a colossus, but—the brilliance of Real Life, Modern Romance, and Lost in America notwithstanding—not even the French have shown any interest in Albert Brooks. I’d hazard that this has something to do with the untranslatable subtlety of his one-liners (dependent as they are on situation and delivery) and the uningratiating nature of his persona (complete with refusal to acknowledge blatant neuroses).
Brooks is the great uninflected narcissist of the movies. Never quite recovering from Albert’s lovingly staged and fabulously failed stand-up routine, Looking for Comedy goes cloak-and-dagger, complete with disturbing intimations of the martyred Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Almost despite itself, this is a deeply pessimistic movie—not least in blandly suggesting that, the universality of stupid pet tricks aside, the mindless application of Cannabis sativa may be the only surefire chuckle bait. Stoned, even the most terrifying Muslims love Brooks’s lame routines, and that’s all he really wants. “I killed, everything worked!” he exults.
In the end, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is a satire of American solipsism. (The perfect accompanying short subject would be a précis of Karen Hughes’s Middle Eastern goodwill mission.) Brooks plays a character so self-absorbed he visits the Taj Mahal and manages not to notice it. As the film ends, who can fail to appreciate the care with which he steps on his own apocalyptic punchline? That’s the joke.