Synopsis: A nation called out in its time of need. Albert Brooks answered. Yes, he would venture into India and Pakistan on a top assignment for the USA. Yes, he would see if comedy could achieve what diplomacy and power has not – make the region’s 300-million Muslims like us. And, yes, he ignites a war in the process.
Academy Award® nominee Brooks writes and directs this observant and slyly hilarious culture clash. Is laughter the best medicine for an ailing world? Find out as Brooks pokes fun at his own preconceived notions in events ranging from a fish-out-of-Ganges standup gig to a meeting with Al-Jazeera honchos to a blindfolded trip into the unknown territory of… Pakistani comedians. Want comedy? Look no further.
It’s difficult being an Albert Brooks fan. Not only is he far less prolific than one would want, but the results of his efforts aren’t always 100% spot on. When he’s on, he’s fantastic. But he doesn’t write as much material as I’d like – if not to have more to enjoy, then at least to spread out the misfires a bit more.
After all, for every ‘The Muse’ there’s a ‘Modern Romance’, every ‘Real Life’ a ‘Lost in America’, every ‘My First Mister’ a ‘The Scout’. And for every ‘Mother’ there’s a ‘Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World’.
It’s not to say that any of his lesser films are wholly unenjoyable. Hardly: each has some terribly funny moments. But they do tend to spin off-course and go into areas that are more sad/pathetic than funny; in his attempts to marry drama and humour, he sometimes forgets about the humour, or gets so dry that one ends up in dire need of a refreshment.
‘Looking for Comedy…’ start of with a ridiculous premise (that, in a quest to understand muslims, and improve relations, the United States government puts together a commission to find out what makes them laugh) and actually finds a way to make it work, to make it appear credible – even if the intentions of the government appear well-intentioned but hopelessly naïve.
Albert Brooks blurs the lines between reality and fiction by playing a version of himself in the film. It’s interesting how Brooks sends up his own personality, turning himself into an egotist who thinks he’s a comic genius and international celebrity. That alone is amusing to me, but Brooks tosses in some excellent lines along the way – many of which he gives to other performers:
This fictional Brooks is sent to India to start his research, and ends up spending most of his time there, with a short stint in Pakistan. With the help of an Indian assistant (“If I don’t laugh at something that I’m supposed to, then please feel free to just kick me so I understand.” ) and a couple of clueless government agents, he proceeds to set up a medium-sized comedy show to gauge reactions – but only after having futilely interviewed or approached a large number of locals:
Man in Temple (giving example of what makes him laugh): “Okay. Laughter is a very serious business, I suppose. Ah, we put it this way. When suppose this gentleman… he is my friend. He takes me for a ride. He takes undue advantage… of my innocence, you can say. I am an emotional fool. He is trying to make me fool, but, I am not – a fool. I allow *him* to make me a fool. You know? Just be ignorant. I just trying to… pretend that okay: I know nothing about him. I know, ah, nothing about the, you know, game of… he is playing with me. So, it makes me laugh. It makes me feel good. Okay, now, he is happy. So… just to *see* him happy, I feel… good, and I also start laughing.”
The film is much funnier before the comedy show takes place. As Brooks sets up shop and begins his adventures, a lot of naturally funny things take place. However, after the jaw-droppingly horrible concert (“Why is everyone talking to me like there’s been a car accident?” ), which was purposely conceived to laugh at his own image, but is cringe-worthy, the film spirals out control, lacking comedic inspiration – the whole sequence in Pakistan, for instance, was forced and failed miserably, leaving the ending to barely salvage the film.
‘Looking for Comedy…’ would clearly have been better with Woody Allen in the lead, as ironic as it is (Brooks has been labelled as the “West Coast Woody Allen”, and has apparently turned down the lead in ‘When Harry Met Sally’ because he felt it was too Allen-esque!). Brooks’ dry style didn’t exactly take advantage of the material and situations, whereas Allen’s quirky and neurotic character would have coloured each sequence to great effect.
As much as I’m quite a fan of Brooks, I have to admit that ‘Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World’ is better in concept than in execution. In fact, it is probably my least favourite film that Brooks has written and directed. It still has its moments, but it could have been SO much better. ‘Looking for Comedy…’ is a picture that went out looking for comedy, but got lost along the way.