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With: Albert Brooks, Sheetal Sheth, John Carroll Lynch, Jon Tenney, Amy Ryan, Fred Dalton Thompson
Written by: Albert Brooks
Directed by: Albert Brooks
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for drug content and brief strong language
Running Time: 98
Date: 12/15/2005

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (2006)

1 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Funny Blown

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When Albert Brooks goes Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, he gives the very distinct impression that he doesn't even know where to find it in his own world.

This is not to detract from Brooks' talent. Though he has carefully followed the Woody Allen mold, playing a self-doubting schlub onscreen and a clever writer/director offscreen, he has nevertheless contributed some interesting and funny ideas -- and indelible characters -- to the canon.

His feature directorial debut, Real Life (1979), today looks like a classic. In it, he plays "Albert Brooks," an obsessive, narcissistic filmmaker who convinces an average, everyday family to let him film their daily lives -- an early "reality show." Of course, he winds up fussing and nitpicking, changing the "reality" around to suit the show, and finally becoming personally involved in the project.

In Looking for Comedy... he plays Albert Brooks once again, but this time living in a quasi-realistic world, in which he has made films called Lost in America (1985) and Finding Nemo (2003). But this Albert is tired and burnt-out. He drags along as if he has the flu. He still fusses and nitpicks, but the life has gone out of it.

He turns up in the opening scene at an audition. Directing a remake of Harvey, Penny Marshall (playing herself) searches for the next Jimmy Stewart. Albert waddles in, wearing an unbuttoned flannel shirt over a t-shirt, reeking of defeat. Marshall shoos him away as quickly as he arrives. It should be a funny moment, but it's not; it just feels soiled and sad.

Another celebrity makes a cameo: Senator Fred Dalton Thompson (perhaps best known for acting in films like In the Line of Fire) summons Brooks to a special committee meeting. As a kind of goodwill gesture, he'll be sent to India and to Pakistan to find out what makes Muslims laugh. But rather than actually investigating anything, Albert obsesses about the 500-page report he'll have to write.

Once in India, Albert hires a pretty Indian girl, Maya (Sheetal Sheth), to be his translator and secretary. Two Washington types, (John Carroll Lynch and Jon Tenney), complete with cell phones and quick answers, tag along. Their confidence only underlines Albert's own ineptitude; because of his bungling, Albert nearly manages to start a Middle Eastern war.

Actually shooting in India, Brooks misses a chance to explore some inventive cross-cultural material, and instead draws most of the film's laughs back to himself. He invents a vaguely, disturbingly romantic, connection with Maya, and dresses in what he thinks is "traditional" garb, including Ali Baba-style shoes with pointy, curly toes. Worst of all, he tries to make the natives laugh with his unbearably horrible comedy routine. (People familiar with Brooks' 1970s stand-up comedy may recognize an attempt to be ironic and/or postmodern here, but the plain fact is that it's not funny.)

In another example of the film's desperate humor, the now famous TV station Al Jazeera invites Albert to a meeting; he thinks they're going to help him with his quest, but in reality they want to offer him a sitcom called "That Darn Jew." Um... yeah.

Brooks' films generally contain one or two good ideas (Defending Your Life, Mother, The Muse, etc.) before they collapse into third act confusion, but this one appears as if Brooks the director literally dragged Brooks the actor out of bed for the job. It's lethargic and sluggish, and the real-life production unfortunately echoes Albert's bungled onscreen "laughter" project. He had a chance to explore Western images of Muslims and, through laughter, make them more human. Instead what we get is less a handshake and more like an affront.{subid}&url=hitlist.asp?searchfield=marvel
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