Three weeks into 2006, Albert Brooks’ Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is already a strong candidate for the year’s most misunderstood movie. Early reviews fault Brooks for setting the movie in India, for avoiding politics, for providing almost no insight into his Muslim characters. He doesn’t even find out what Muslims think is funny. Except for Polish jokes, and Jews.
Like the movie’s Brooks, a self-absorbed bungler dispatched overseas by the U.S. government for humor surveillance, the early reviews are looking but not seeing. There’s a reason the movie isn’t called Finding Comedy in the Muslim World. It’s about searching for an easy answer that doesn’t exist—a search Brooks compares, without ever stating it directly, to our entire sojourn in the Middle East.
As writer and director, Brooks has made a subtle satire of flat-footed good intentions abroad with himself as the goat—the FEMA of comic relief. Deployed by none other than Fred Dalton Thompson to find what tickles the non-Christian funnybone, the movie’s Albert sets up a rat-trap office in New Delhi. He accosts strangers in English, with jokes that wheeze in any language; when those fail, he gets a brighter idea—his own one-man Muslim comedy jam.
This long sequence, in which Albert tries ventriloquist shtick on a stone-faced Indian audience, may be the pinnacle of Brooks’ squirmy brand of comic humiliation and whiny entitlement. Here, pumping his audience for improv topics he blithely discards—the ostensible purpose of his mission—he’s funnier bombing than most comics are killing.
Bombing and killing, however, are what’s at stake off-screen in Brooks’ deceptively light film. In comic terms, he does little of either here. The movie elicits mostly mild chuckles, though as with most of Brooks’ films the jokes seem funnier in retrospect. But it’s an uncommonly thoughtful and timely American comedy, keenly aware of outsourcing, the global conquest of Hollywood entertainment, and our limited understanding of the Muslim world. If only all the world’s bombers were killing the same way as Albert Brooks.