Credit: Looking For Comedy in the Muslim World: Lacey Terrell

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World


Albert Brooks used to be a master at making his audience squirm with laughter. In his early, funny films, like Real Life (1979), Modern Romance (1981), and the classic yuppie burlesque Lost in America (1985), he could spend whole scenes talking his way out of the trouble he’d just talked his way into. Harassing all comers, taking his audience on bumpy flights of defensive patter, he was the Larry David of his day — the Last Earnest Jew in Los Angeles, a man whose ”conversation” was really a plea, an argument, a prolonged noodgy onslaught of self-justifying riffs.

The Albert Brooks who wrote, directed, and stars in Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is, in a sense, just an older version of that earlier verbal-fizz neurotic. This time, he even plays himself: famous comedian and filmmaker Albert Brooks, who, in a running gag, is now best known for voicing the role of a fish in Finding Nemo. Called to Washington, Brooks is asked by the State Department to journey to India and Pakistan, where, as a means of advancing sensitivity in the war on terror, he’s to spend 30 days exploring what makes the Muslims of the world laugh. He’s given a couple of bodyguard gofers, nerdish Stuart (John Carroll Lynch) and surly Mark (Jon Tenney), and after hiring an Indian assistant, the comely, adoring Maya (Sheetal Sheth), he makes plans to present a comedy concert in New Delhi.

Brooks is paler now, his eyes tugging downward where they once twinkled. He’s still spinning in circles of neurotic banter, but with a key difference: In Looking for Comedy, as in The Muse and Mother, his semi-duds of the ’90s, his words no longer come from a place of need. Brooks has mellowed; his air of squelched panic is gone. He now appears genial and complacent rather than possessed, as if he’d accepted his role in the universe but, for the sake of his movie, had to pretend to be the Albert Brooks of old.

Donning an outfit that makes him look like the leader of Sgt. Vindaloo’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Brooks performs his big comedy act, which consists of sub-Vegas one-liners (”I was in Kashmir last weekend — went to visit one of my sweaters!”), a lousy ventriloquist routine, and an impression of a Japanese man that would be racist if it weren’t… well, actually, it is racist.

The movie isn’t racist; it’s just lame. If Brooks truly cared about Muslims or how their funny bones worked, Looking for Comedy might have had some zing, but all his character is interested in is the 500-page report he has to deliver — a homework assignment from hell. Looking for Comedy lacks a genuine — or funny — point of view. The Indians are right to sit in silence at Brooks’ dreadful concert, but the film still insists on portraying them as humorless stoics. Is that the joke? Brooks never connects with the Muslims on screen, all of whom are one-note characters. Smuggled into Pakistan, he puffs on a hookah and repeats his stand-up routine (once was bad enough), and he meets with executives from al-Jazeera, who want to star him in a sitcom called That Darn Jew! That’s as close as the movie comes to a daring laugh, but it’s not close enough; it’s a cliché posing as post-9/11 edge. It’s hard to know what Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is trying to ”say” when finding the comedy in an Albert Brooks film has become an increasingly dicey proposition.

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World
  • Movie
  • 98 minutes