Looking for Comedy
in the Muslim World

directed by Albert Brooks
(Warner, 2005)

Albert Brooks can't get a movie gig to save his life -- especially the lead role in a remake of the Jimmy Stewart classic Harvey.

"What did I say we're looking for?" asks director Penny Marshall after booting Brooks from a casting session. "The next Jimmy Stewart," comes the answer. "That," says movie mogul Marshall, "is NOT the next Jimmy Stewart."

Nope, it's Albert Brooks playing Albert Brooks, with his usual expression -- like he smells something vaguely puzzling -- fixing itself as he bumbles through a world peopled by others more dazzling or hard-charging or clued-in than he is.

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is typical Brooks: he's playing an everyman, and he's not going to force a single joke -- in fact, he almost seems to apologize for ever thinking you'd laugh at something he said and, oh, never mind, he'll just go over here and mumble some standup comedy and try to blend in.

As soon as Brooks builds up to a big laugh he shies away -- which, often, makes it funnier than if he announced the punchline with a cymbal crash and a big closeup.

This time around, he's playing himself -- out of work and off Hollywood's radar completely ... but then the government comes calling.

A top-secret commission, headed by former Sen. Fred Dalton Thompson (in real life a former actor turned senator, here turned actor again, playing himself as senator), has been charged with bringing to the American government an understanding of Muslims. They'll send Brooks to Pakistan and India and, in return, want a 500-page report on what makes Muslims (and Hindus) laugh.

There will be no paycheck, Thompson says, then suggests that the Medal of Freedom may be in the offing for such meritorious service.

What follows is pure Brooks: "Oh my," he breathes, hand pressing his chest in awe. "That's the one with the colored ribbon?"

He quickly jets out to India, wedged in economy class with two State Department handlers, en route to a tiny office, stand-up comedy humiliation, illegal border crossings and an unwitting role at the center of an international crisis between India and Pakistan.

It's not speedy, and it's not played for laughs; you'll have to pay attention. But there are moments of glee with his brand of satire: a summons from Al Jazeera, the Arabic-language network, to star in its new sitcom (the title translates loosely, he's told, as That Darn Jew); a visit to the site of the Taj Mahal during which he manages to walk right past the Taj Mahal; and a running gag in which, when Brooks arrives at his office in India each day, he passes by an international call center providing customer service to Americans:

"Toys R Us, may I help you?"
"Your doors are now unlocked. Thank you for calling OnStar."
"The White House; how may I help you?"

There could be easy laughs here, but Brooks' intelligence won't allow them, and his trademark discomfort feels natural in this world, onscreen and off -- he's anxious, we're uncertain and, like it or not, we're all in it together.

by Jen Kopf
17 February 2007

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