OK, people, get out a pencil and paper; we're going to take a WASU (Written Assessment of Student Understanding).
Question #1: Given the warfare, turmoil, and general unrest in the Middle East, explain how you think movie audiences might have reacted to the title of comedian Albert Brooks's 2005 release, "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World."
Question #2: Considering that Brooks filmed his movie in India and Pakistan, lands known for poverty, overpopulation, and hardship, explain whether you think audiences might have been a little apprehensive about watching Brooks's film.
Question #3: Just what in the world was Brooks thinking of?
Toward the end of the picture, Brooks comments to another character, "You know in comedy you try things. Some work, some don't. You're allowed to bomb. It's not the end of the world." I'm not sure if Brooks meant those words to be as prophetic as they turned out to be, but the movie did bomb, not even earning a tenth what it cost to make. It may not have deserved to be overlooked, but it was.
The humor in most of Albert Brooks's films is sweet and gentle, and often, as in "Defending Your Life," it is exactly what is needed. But in a film like "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World," which takes satiric potshots at the U.S. government, various Middle Eastern governments, and bureaucracies in general, sweet and gentle aren't enough. He could have made his barbs more pointed, more piercing, more penetrating. If he thought his film was going to bomb, why not let it bomb big time, go down in flames rather than a tiny, smoldering ember? When Kubrick made "Dr. Strangelove," he had the cheek to blow up the entire world. Brooks could have been more daring in his approach as well. But, then, that would not be Albert Brooks's style. He's a sweet, gentle, subtle, laid-back kind of guy, and I suppose that's the way he's always going to approach his humor and his moviemaking.
In "Looking for Comedy" Brooks plays a fictionalized version of himself, an out-of-work comedian whose last jobs were acting in "The In-Laws" and voicing a fish in "Finding Nemo." In the first scene we see him applying for the lead in a remake of "Harvey," with Penny Marshall directing. She turns him down, and it sets the tone for the self-effacing characterization to follow. It also establishes the idea that people seldom say what they really mean, as both Brooks and Marshall compliment one another on the other's films, which neither of them like.
Then we get to the heart of the story. Brooks gets a letter from Senator Fred Dalton Thompson, played by real-life former senator and full-time actor Fred Dalton Thompson, that reads: "Dear Mr. Brooks, I am heading up a commission that is designed to better understand the Muslim peoples of the world. We're attempting this task through various measures, one of which I would like you involved in....." You can guess what they want. The government is trying better to understand the Muslim nations (remember, this is fiction) and to that end, they want to send Brooks off to India and Pakistan to explore what tickles these people's funny bone.
"Why me?" asks Brooks. "Quite frankly," Thompson answers, "our first few choices were working." Besides, they offer him a Medal of Freedom if he'll try it. And all Brooks has to do is spend a month over there and then write up a 500-page report. "Don't worry," says one of Thompson's committee, "they don't read them; they weigh them."
One of Brooks's major themes in the movie is clearly to show how all peoples everywhere share laughter; it's the one thing everybody has in common. But what makes different people laugh is another matter. And it's a matter that tends to elude Brooks in this film. By the title alone one might infer that Brooks is looking for any sign of humor in the Middle East, as though Middle Eastern people either had no sense of humor at all or could not find anything funny enough to laugh about. This is certainly not so. Brooks finds that people in India and Pakistan laugh as much as anybody, but they often laugh at different things. All right, one of the few things he does learn is that "Polish jokes work everywhere."
In a central and typically ambiguous segment, Brooks gives a stand-up comedy concert in New Delhi before a group of English-speaking Indians. Everything goes wrong, and the audience remains stone-faced throughout his act. It's the equivalent "of a car accident." But why don't they laugh? Is it because of a culture clash? Is it because they didn't understand the jokes? Or is it more possibly because Brooks's routine is essentially non-funny and would have left an American audience equally unimpressed? Is this movie about the inanities of world governments, the cultural distinctions between peoples, or simply a take on Brooks himself? The movie is never clear what it's about.
Anyway, the funniest and most-pointed parts of the movie come when Brooks first arrives in India with this two State Department aides, played by John Tenney and John Carroll Lynch. They find him a tiny office, a hovel really, in a building given over to a flock of American companies outsourcing their tech support to India. (At one point we even overhear an operator saying, "Hello, this is the White House. How may I direct your call?") At the office Brooks's first job is to find an assistant who can speak the language, take shorthand, and type. He has some funny interviews, again mostly self-effacing. One applicant explains to him, "I was told that I would be working for a big American star.... Who is he?"
But this is basically a one-man show, and it's all Brooks. Although he does hire a lovely young lady named Maya (Sheetal Sheth) as his assistant, and they share a few good lines together as she tries to interpret his sarcasm and irony, it's mostly just Brooks doing all the talking. And that's much of the problem: The film tends to wander hither and yon, never establishing a base. Brooks sprinkles isolated moments of brilliance into long stretches of tedium. When Brooks finally does settle down into something resembling satire, it's either early on and not well developed or late in the film and not developed at all. For instance, he meets secretly in the dead of night with a group of aspiring Pakistani comedians, arousing the suspicions of both Indian and Pakistani governments. By the time he leaves his mission of peace, he has almost provoked a full-scale war between the two nations. But this scenario is simply a parting thought in the script, not a serious theme.
Despite the potential for disaster Brooks sets up with the title, the movie is relatively harmless. It's just so very gentle and harmless that it doesn't make much of an impression. Brooks might better have titled it "Looking for Comedy in 'Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World.'" Still, it will not offend anyone, and there are those moments that make it at least partially worthwhile.
The video engineers here render the movie's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio at a more accommodating 1.78:1 for widescreen TVs. Using an anamorphic, high-bit-rate transfer, they manage a very good, if very slightly rough image. Colors are deep and solid, as we might expect, black levels are strong, and detail and delineation are fairly good for a standard-definition picture. Facial tones vary somewhat, from quite natural to somewhat dark. Film grain is absent, but minor transfer noise is sometimes apparent.
Although the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound provides a pleasant front-channel stereo spread, the rear channels have little to do except add a touch of musical ambience now and then. Frankly, there isn't much for them to do, so this is not really a criticism. A few crowd noises do show up in the surrounds, so the noisy, bustling atmosphere of New Delhi is realistically captured. When the soundtrack calls upon the deepest bass, which is seldom, it is appropriately roaring; otherwise, the response is smooth and well balanced.
There is not much in the way of bonus items on the disc. Some four minutes of deleted scenes, four scenes in all, and a widescreen theatrical trailer are about all you get. In addition, there are twenty-five scene selections, but no chapter insert; English as the only available spoken language; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Yes, "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World" is unmistakably an Albert Brooks film. You can take that for what it's worth, good or bad. Brooks is an amiable comedian whose art is in deft but subtle deadpan humor, and for this movie I don't think the approach works. Other people might love it.