Review: Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World

BY KHALILAH WALTERS

There are those fish-out-of water comedies that will have you howling in the theater and chuckling to yourself days later. Then, there are those that prompt irrepressible regret at having wasted over an hour and a half of your life. Looking for Comedy is the poster child of the latter genre. The premise of Albert Brooks’ latest effort is that of a struggling comic actor commissioned by the U.S. Department of State to produce a 500-page report on what makes people in India and Pakistan laugh. The aim is to understand “the Muslim World” better. Brooks’ adventures take him to New Delhi, in awkward interviews with passersby, an inauspicious stand up comedy performance and a shady, border-crossing jaunt into Pakistan.

The first ten minutes of Looking for Comedy is promising enough. Penny Marshall shines in her role as a director seeking the next Jimmy Stewart. Yet this is a mere tease. Forget the Muslim World. Where’s the comedy in Brooks’ world?

The film’s offerings are trite. Brooks’ office is adjacent to a center taking calls from American companies. His interviews of potential office assistants for his important mission feature some glimpses of humor that we later must evaluate as the high-point of the comedy. Yes, we get it: the extent of outsourcing is simply shocking – even the White House has operators standing by in New Delhi. And we get it; anti-Semites lurk around every other corner in “the Muslim World”, so that those ailing from the disease are glibly indifferent to the idea that anti-Semitism is a moral failing. But the movie’s political message – if it can hold still long enough to articulate one – finds a shoddy vehicle in the strained humor.

Looking for Comedy is an amorphous mess that tries desperately to hold to its comedic mission by playing off stereotypical natives. It saunters on in a pace that never really picks up. The denouement eventually occurs without Brooks delivering a real punch line.

The film relies too much on the notion that a Jewish-American comic actor embarrassing himself through obvious scenes with natives in this alien Muslim territory is a sure thing for humor. It strains on the prayer that an aging, B-list actor making self-referential digs at his own career will have audiences hooting at his fumbles. It errs on both counts.

Brooks’ initially endearing shtick of the gently self-deprecating but self-involved comedian eventually grates as we impatiently await the final curtain. Not even the attempt at injecting some urgency into the plot via geo-political intrigue can save this one. Looking for Comedy ultimately commits the unpardonable sin for comedy: it is hardly funny.

What may save Looking for Comedy is the notion that it may not be a comedy at all. In chronicling Brooks’ travails and failures in making “the Muslim World” laugh, the film takes a satirical look at a self-styled American icon who fails to amuse because he is so ensconced in his own culturally-limited view of what is humorous. Brooks’ jokes, which he never alters, are replete with cultural references completely alien to the people he is ostensibly attempting to understand. As commentary on the ugly American whose idea of understanding a foreign culture is an unsuccessful yet unrelenting drive to win them over to his way of viewing things, Looking for Comedy may have a point, after all, especially given the escalating political hostilities unwittingly occasioned by Brooks’ antics. But unfortunately, it is no laughing matter.[T]he movie’s political message – if it can hold still long enough to articulate one – finds a shoddy vehicle in the strained humor.

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