Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World

© 2006 Ray Wong

Triple threat comedian Albert Brooks is
at it again, this time trying to cash in on the volatile world under the shadow of terrorism. The result is at times humorous, but often off the mark.

Brooks plays himself, a Hollywood comedian looking for his next big thing. When he receives a letter from the US State Department asking for his help, he’s intrigued. What transpires is that the government wants him to head up a committee to find out what makes the Muslims laugh, as a new tactic for combating potential terrorism. Lured by the promise of the Freedom medal and international fame, Brooks takes the job and flies with two agents (Lynch and Tenney) to India. They’re supposed to interview people in India and Pakistan to find out what is funny to them, then write a 500-page report.

Like fish out of water, Brooks has trouble getting people to laugh. He hires an assistant, Maya (Sheth) to help him write the report, and she gives him some good advice. Nobody knows who he is, except that he’s in that “fish” cartoon. Brooks decides to give the first standup comedy performance in Delhi. Little does he know that his performance will soon trigger an international crisis.

OK, we get it. It’s a comedy and the subject matter is timely. But racial and cultural parodies are tricky. Brook’s humor can be low-brow sometimes and sometimes subtle, but it can also quite funny. For instance, when he receives the government letter, his first reaction is, “Boy, are they going to come get me because I searched for ‘terrorism’ once, online?” Given the current brouhaha concerning the Feds over Google’s search records, the line is particularly funny. The constant jokes about outsourcing (an operator at a remote call center in Delhi: “Hello, this is the White House, how may I direct your call?”) and the fascination and ignorance about American culture are quite on the nose as well. Over all, though, I think Brooks misses the mark on making this a great satire.

Brooks (FINDING NEMO) specializes in the school of self-deprecating humor. Here, he plays himself as a doofus, someone who is egotistical but knows nothing about foreign countries or cultures. Always lauded as the Woody Allen of the West, Brooks has the same grating, self-gratifying, nasal whininess in his demeanor. He sounded cute in the “fish” cartoon but in real life, he’s tiring. His co-stars, however, are not so bad. Sheth (DANCING IN TWILIGHT) is beautiful and sweet and innocent. She steals the show. Lynch (GOTHIKA) and Tenney (YOU CAN COUNT ON ME) play what Brooks calls “Abbott and Costello” to good comedic effect. Ryan (CAPOTE) plays Brooks’ on-screen (not real) wife in good fun. The film was shot on location in India, employing local actors and hundreds of extras.

I think Brooks’ first misstep is choosing to play himself. Sure, the character is a comedian and he lives in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter, but they are not Albert Brook’s real wife and daughter or his real life. So it’s hard to suspend disbelief after that. Also, Brooks’ humor relies too heavily on cultural stereotypes. At first, the jokes are funny because we could all laugh at a Polish or Indian joke. Then it just gets old fast, if not utterly offensive. The plot is rather thin and the stakes are superficial. The characters are caricatures, but we come to expect that from an Albert Brook’s comedy. The film just feels very spotty and the humor unfocused. Aside from a few genuine laughs, trying to look for comedy in this comedy can be a difficult task.

Albert Brooks, John Carroll Lynch, Jon Tenney, Sheetal Sheth, Amy Ryan
Albert Brooks
Albert Brooks
Warner Independent
MPAA Rating:
PG-13 for drug use and brief strong language
Running time:
98 minutes

Script – 4
Performance – 6
Direction – 5

Cinematography – 6
Music/Sound– 6
Editing – 6
Production – 6

Total Score – 5.6 out of 10

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