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Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World

In case you don't get it, Albert Brooks' Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (2006) is actually looking for narcissism in the Western world. Unfortunately, the film's also about looking for laughs — and failing to find them — in Brooks' eraser-dull late filmography. Brooks' seventh writer/director effort finds him playing "Albert Brooks," the self-involved neurotic he's played so beautifully in pretty much everything he's written, from Modern Romance and Lost in America to Mother and The Muse. Looking for Comedy begins with Brooks looking for work. Penny Marshall refuses to hire him for her next movie because, as she puts it, "We don't want to go the Jewish way." It's funny to hear Marshall toss off this line in her best yenta drawl, but it's also a conceptual gag that pays off later: The State Department sends Brooks to India and Pakistan to write a 500-page report on what makes Muslims laugh — and late in his ill-fated, clueless tour of the (mostly Hindu) Middle East, Al-Jazeera offers Brooks the lead role in their new sitcom, "That Darn Jew." This is, unfortunately, one of the funniest jokes in the movie. And it's nowhere near as funny as the best bits in other Brooks films, even the flawed ones. (It's not even in the same ZIP code as, say, that review of embarrassing moments Brooks endures in Defending Your Life.) It's not hard to understand what Brooks is on about. His onscreen doppelgänger doesn't study Muslim-produced TV shows or movies to suss out their sensibility. Instead — in a satire of American foreign policy that's about as hard-hitting as your average "Muppet Show" episode — Brooks inflicts his own lame, culturally specific jokes on unwilling audiences… bombs… and then thinks he can get better results next time by changing the lighting. (Mostly, as he finds during an illegal border crossing, he gets better results when his audience is stoned.) He's so lost in his own kvetching, he walks by the Taj Mahal without taking a look. And he never even notices that all his talk about "bombing" in public places sets off a chain of events that nearly send India and Pakistan back to war. Looking for Comedy toys with ideas. On a structural level, perhaps there's a lot going on here: Brooks is doing a gentle meta-riff on the elusiveness of comedy, the condescension of celebrities and nation-states, and anti-Semitism (a first for Brooks, it seems). And there are a few bright spots. New Delhi's great to look at. Brooks' shabby office is next door to an Indian call center that answers the phones for OnStar and the White House, which is kind of funny. And Sheetal Sheth is just adorable as the assistant Brooks saddles with all his pesky research — when he isn't advising her on dealing with her jealous Iranian boyfriend (Homie Doroodian), an angry dork who insists he was the funniest guy in his explosives-training class. (Wacky.) But beyond that, nearly every gag is soft, sleepy, and utterly mid-list sitcom. How soft? We're talking jokes about Brooks' wife spending too much money on eBay. Brooks saying a relative "thinks Muslim is a kind of fabric." Sheth taking the phrase "break a leg" literally. And even, dear Lord, Brooks wearing pointy shoes as he tries to "go native." When the movie's this dopey, it's hard to figure out who Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is supposed to entertain, much less enlighten. Warner's DVD release features a very good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras include a brief "Additional Scenes" reel (4 min.) and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
Mike Russell

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