Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (2006): Albert Brooks Potentially Incendiary, but Lame Satire

A potentially incendiary satire, Albert Brooks’ “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World” is so mild and tame that it mostly barks rather than really bites.

Dumped by its initial distributor because of its titlethe word “Muslim” signals box-office poison in the post-9/11 context–the film is a misfire in spite of honorable intentions and an excellent title. Rather disappointingly, despite Brooks’ goal to contest stereotypes and portray Muslims as more than terrorists, his slapdash movie is almost stripped of any manifest or latent political content, instead opting for the formulaic premise of Brooks as a fish-out-of-water comedian.

Brooks again plays a variation of himself, the bright, endlessly complaining schmuck, who, unable to get any decent big-screen work in the U.S., is given the opportunity to travel to India and Pakistan on behalf of the U.S. government to find out what makes Muslims laugh. As a typical Jewish neurotic (sort of Woody Allen’s nephew), Brooks complains about every aspect of his assignment, from the 500-page report he has to produce to the fact that no limo is waiting for him upon arrival in New Delhi.

Brooks’s stand-up performance, in which he deconstructs traditional ventriloquism and improvisation routines, meets with silence from an English-speaking Indian crowd. He turns down a sitcom deal from Al Jazeera for a show called That Darn Jew and unintentionally sparks regional military conflict in scenarios that use Muslims as confused straight men for his sarcastic shtick.

As comedian-actor and writer-director, Brooks has been in decline. His recent performances in “The In-Laws” and “Finding Nemo,” as the voice of the lead fish, were decent but no more. He is therefore very excited when he gets a chance to talk with director Penny Marshall (“Big”) who is looking for another Jimmy Stewart for a new version of “Harvey.” But, unfortunately, the interview is short and unpleasant.

Coming home, Brooks finds his wife (Amy Ryan) shopping on EBay again; he tells her he is going to have to order a Parental Consent device for her computer. Then, a letter from the government asks him to go to Washington. At the State Department, he is invited to be part of a new initiative designed to help Americans better understand Muslims. Headed by actor-politician Fred Dalton Thompson, the Committee wants him to spend a month in India and Pakistan, to find out what makes Muslims laugh.

He is obligated to write a report of 500 pages; to alleviate his anxiety, one committee member tells him not to worry about the document’s length since no one will read it anyway. Still, Brooks being Brooks, he is apprehensive about the assignment until Thompson says that he could earn the Medal of Freedom for his service. Needy and ambitious, Brooks takes the job with mixed feelings.

On the flight to New Dehli, Brooks, Stuart (John Carrol Lynch), and Mark (Jon Tenney), the State Department officials working with him, sit in coach rather than First Class due to a bureaucratic mix-up. In New Delhi his office is not just small but also located in a dilapidated structure; the other offices contain phone banks for customer service jobs from the U.S. Walking around, he hears one Indian says “William Morris Agency,” and another “the White House.”

After struggling to find an Indian assistant from applicants who cannot type, Brooks hires Maya (Sheetal Sheth), an attractive, enthusiastic woman who is a good typist and stenographer, though there’s the “minor” problem that Maya doesn’t get Brooks’ sarcastic humor. Tutoring his comedy-ignorant Indian assistant Maya, Brooks dubs himself “The Henry Higgins of Comedy,” while his wife, proud of her husband’s diplomatic endeavor, labels him “The Henry Kissinger of Comedy”this is the general level of humor.

Outdoors, Brooks conducts some interviews with Indians to find out what they find funny. Needless to say, some refuse to cooperate since he is an American, while others just don’t have the time or interest to participate. With only a month to complete his assignment, Brooks comes up with the idea of putting on “The Big Show,” a comedy concert that will enable him to experiment with a wide range of routines and find out which ones make Muslims laugh.

Still nervous about the 500-page report, he asks Maya to research and write the history of India to pad the report. In the process, the duo visits laughing Yoga club, where they pass out leaflets.

Later, Brooks is forced to dress and get prepared in a tipi outside the hall. Since there is no one to introduce him, he disguises his voice and does it himself from the wings. As expected, the evening turns out to be a catastrophe. At first, he thinks the audience doesn’t understand English when they don’t laugh at his ventriloquist number with a dummy and his improvisation skits. Instead of admitting a flop, Brooks characteristically blames his failure on the lights, claiming that they weren’t dimmed. He further predicts that the next show would be more successful.

Brooks has made a mildly entertaining comedy that satirizes not so much politics as American comedy routines. It’s funny to observe Brooks trying hard to go native with some outrageous costumes. The film’s humor is not targeted at foreigners, but at comedy as a universal tool that could also function as an element of foreign policy.

The movie’s last part describes how Brooks sneaks across the border into Pakistan for a secret meeting with aspiring comedians and then a surprise meeting with executives at the Arab TV station who offer him a sitcom. As the self-absorbed whining American, Brooks fuels enmity between India and Pakistan just by his presence.

Brooks’ idea for a comedy about Muslin humor sounds audacious; in practice, however, the film is a major disappointment. Does Brooks learn any lesson from his search for a Muslim sense of humor

It seems that the fruitless odyssey only teaches him that, “Shit jokes don’t play in New Delhi” and “Polish jokes work everywhere.” You may wonder if it was worthy for Brooks to take the journey and for us viewers to follow him.