Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is a great title with a great premise for a not so great film. The comedy of Albert Brooks is delicate stuff - self-deprecating one-liners that need the perfect context to generate laughter. Films like Mother and Lost in America have given Brooks' humor the necessary framework; Looking fails to do so. While there are some amusing moments sprinkled throughout the production, the words "Looking for Laughter" seem oddly appropriate for a motion picture that never achieves the right level of comedic momentum.

When the United States government decides to fund a project to determine what Muslims find funny, who better to call upon than comedian Albert Brooks (stretching his thespian abilities to the extreme by playing himself)? Actually, Brooks wasn't #1 on their list, but the preferred choices were working. The committee chairman - actor-turned-Senator-turned-actor Fred Dalton Thompson - offers Brooks a unique opportunity to help his country: spend a month in India and Pakistan, learn what Muslims (and Hindus) view as comedy, then write a 500 page report summarizing his findings. Although there's no money involved, Thompson hints that if Brooks does this, he might be in line for the Medal of Freedom - that's the nice medal with the colored ribbon. Accompanied by two State Department officials (John Carroll Lynch, Jon Tenney), Brooks heads to India, where he hires an eager assistant, Maya (Sheetal Sheth), to help with the tasks of taking notes and understanding the culture.

At the core of Looking is a fascinating question: how universal is comedy? Do Muslims in Pakistan laugh at the same things as longshoreman in New York City? The movie's answer is that, while humor is global, jokes may not be. It's a matter of developing a rapport with an audience and making sure they understand the background of the material. This is illustrated when Brooks gives the same stand-up performance to two different groups. The first is a bomb; the second is a success. The material doesn't change, but the audience's understanding of it does. (The routine itself is mediocre, and not representative of Brooks' best.)

Like Woody Allen (to whom he has occasionally been compared), Brooks makes the characters he plays the targets of self-deprecating humor. In this case, by playing a version of himself, he takes things one step further. If nothing else, Brooks has to be considered a good sport for being willing to poke fun at his image. But the Brooks we see on-screen is a largely fictional representation. His wife (Amy Ryan) is played by an actress, as is his daughter. One suspects that the similarities between the real Brooks and his fictional counterpart begin and end with the name, face, and a few personality traits.

Although Looking has a narrative, it's a rambling, poorly focused one. Most of the movie follows Brooks as he bumbles around India asking people what they find funny. A breath of fresh air is provided by actress Sheetal Sheth, whose breezy personality provides a contrast to Brooks' sad-sack approach. Many of the best jokes are the throwaways - Brooks' encounter with outsourcing, his experience watching a Bollywood film on T.V., and the "tent" he uses for a dressing room before his stand-up performance. But a lot of material that's supposed to be funny, isn't.

The best way I can describe Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is an intriguing failure. I doubt philosophical musings about the nature of humor are the reasons why potential audience members go to see an Albert Brooks picture. As comedies go, despite its unusual structure and premise, this one is sub-par. There are stretches when one has the sense that we're looking for comedy in Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World. Strange that a movie about comedy is so lacking in this quality.

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (United States, 2006)

Director: Albert Brooks
Cast: Albert Brooks, Sheetal Sheth, John Carroll Lynch, Jon Tenney, Amy Ryan
Screenplay: Albert Brooks
Cinematography: Thomas E. Ackerman
Music: Michael Giacchino
U.S. Distributor: Warner Independent
Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2006-01-20
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1