Albert Brooks, Sheetal Sheth, Jon Tenney, John Carroll Lynch
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY
I'd like to know. Do you like riddles? Polish jokes? Blonde jokes? Improv? Ventriloquism? What REALLY makes you laugh? I want to know. Apparently, in fact, our beleaguered President George W. Bush even cares about such matters...or so Albert Brooks would like us to think.
In his latest film, "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World," writer/director Brooks plays a man named, rather appropriately, Albert Brooks. The "character" Brooks is a comedian whose career is languishing in mediocrity, and the film opens with him landing an interview for Penny Marshall's upcoming remake of "Harvey," for which she's looking for the next Jimmy Stewart. The "audition" lasts about 30 seconds before polite banter is followed by "Thanks for coming in."
This opening sequence, followed by his hilarious return home to his Ebay obsessed wife (Amy Ryan) and young daughter (Emma Lockhart) and, finally, the opening of a just arrived certified letter from the U.S. Government all play beautifully into the typical Brooks persona of self-deprecation, insecurity, and utter cluelessness. Even as Brooks reads the letter asking for his assistance in a special government project, he wonders aloud if they didn't intend to ask Mel Brooks.
Brooks is called to Washington, D.C., where he is offered a very special assignment (because the other comedians were working)...The White House has decided to try something other than weapons and war. They want him to travel to India and Pakistan, find out what makes Muslims laugh and submit a 500-page report on the subject (small by Federal standards, he is assured). His expenses will be covered, but there is no pay BUT there is the "Medal of Freedom." Watching Brooks' eyes light up at the mention of the "Medal of Freedom" is one of those "little" moments in comedy for which Brooks is known.
Brooks is not your typical comedian, and "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World" is not your typical comedy. Often in comedy films, the goal of the writer and/or director becomes to inundate the audience with as much distraction and as many jokes as possible knowing that odds are favorable that at least half will cause at least a smile, a chuckle, or some sort of emotional/physical response.
A Brooks film is different. Brooks is a patient comedian who, quite often, grows his comedy out of those small moments in daily life that are amusing more for their familiarity than for anything else. As we watch Brooks leave the United States for India with his two State Department handlers (Jon Tenney and John Carroll Lynch), we are immediately confronted with the stereotypical American traveler...entitled, spoiled, and seeking to be catered to even in the worst of circumstances. Whether it is being appalled that his promise of a first-class flight was broken or at the office-space without a computer (in the tech capital of the world), Brooks has this wondrous ability to convey that almost blind ignorance that gives American travelers their high-maintenance reputation. These scenes are not necessarily played for laughs...for Brooks that would be too obvious and way too easy. Instead, he merely acts out the scenes and grows the laughs out of the familiarity of the situation. Those who have traveled, experienced different cultures, or with a tremendous patience for comedy will experience utter delight during these scenes, while those who require the "in your face" comedy stylings of a Sandler, Schneider or standard-fare American comedy are likely to find the film monotonous and without reward.
The film kicks into high gear in India, first through interviews for an assistant and then, once the assistant is hired, by the charming, subtle performance of Sheetal Sheth as Maya, who types 135 words a minute, speaks six languages, has a jealous Iranian boyfriend and doesn't get most of his jokes. Sheth, actually from New Jersey, is beautiful, funny, and conveys a wide-eyed innocence that nearly steals every scene from Brooks.
After discovering that India has, in fact, no comedy clubs, Brooks comes up with the idea to hold a comedy concert and invite Delhi residents to the free show at a 400-seat auditorium in a local school. Of course, the inevitable happens. Brooks bombs as joke after joke after joke fails. Is this saying that Muslims don't, in fact, laugh? On the contrary, this scene features Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus and the joke appears to be on Brooks who is so busy being wrapped up in his own world, own agenda, and own humor that he ends up failing miserably.
There are scenes, especially in the first half, that are incredibly subtle and funny. For example, in the same building as Brooks' office is a telephone switchboard. Each time Brooks walks past this office, we hear the Indian operators answering it with different American companies. This happens a minimum of three times, but it stays fresh each time with the addition of new companies and because of the perfect timing of it.
Had Brooks chosen to stay focused on the comic implications of cultural differences, "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World" would easily be a B+ film. The first half of the film is laugh out loud funny, however, about halfway into the film Brooks shifts the gears in two different ways.
First, Brooks adds scenes involving the political paranoia of the Indian and Pakistani governments at this stranger visiting their land, asking questions, passing out flyers, holding a comedy concert, exploring the land, and even sneaking across the Pakistani border to meet with "aspiring comedians" when his visa is denied. These small scenes involving the dual governments are pointless, lacking direction, never funny, and each time they mute the comic energy of the film. Even worse, Brooks resolves the situation so weakly that I couldn't help but ask "Why did that even need to be there?"
Likewise, the scene with Pakistani comedians seems counterproductive and, ultimately, is too insignificant considering the film advertises Brooks' journey to India and Pakistan.
Finally, perhaps because of switching directions, Brooks seems unclear on how to end the film with a solid impact. Should he go the political route? Should he discover, in his eyes, what makes Muslims laugh? The ending goes slightly, but lamely, towards the political route. As a result of this decision, the wonderful chemistry with Maya is completely ignored with a throw-away goodbye scene and all the issues we've seen build up regarding cultural differences is completely ignored.
Despite the disappointing ending and diverging paths towards the end of the film, "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World" is a film that should please most Brooks fans. It's funny, insightful, intelligent, and downright sweet at times. Albert Brooks chooses to create a patient, intelligent and gentle comedy that avoids the pitfalls of easy comedy by refusing to stereotype or caricaturize the people it portrays, but does gently and humorously paint these caricatures vividly enough that we can all see how silly they really are.
Blessed with a marvelous performance from Sheetal Sheth, along with solid performances from the rest of the supporting cast, "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World" ends up finding its humor not so much in the Muslim world, but in humanity. The film's cinematography of India is beautiful, capturing many of the country's wondrous architectural wonders and the film's score beautifully utilizes the region's musical influences.
What makes me laugh?
"Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World."