Movie seeks laughs in the Muslim world

Movie seeks laughs in the Muslim world


In Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, writer/director/comedian Albert Brooks goes to Pakistan and India to look for what makes Muslims laugh. It is an inspired idea for a movie.

Brooks plays a comedian named Albert Brooks, who is down on his luck when he gets an unexpected call from a government commission formed to find out what makes people in the Muslim world laugh. The head of the commission, Fred Dalton Thompson (playing himself) tells Brooks that the president thinks that we might understand Muslims better if we can understand what makes them laugh. Thompson tells him there is no pay, although his expenses will be covered. However, after repeatedly emphasizing what a great service he would perform for his country, Thompson hints that Brooks might be up for a Medal of Freedom, which could do great things for his sagging career. Dazzled, Brooks agrees, even if he does have to submit a massive report on his findings. “We’ll assign someone to help you,” Thompson reassures him. Brooks is assigned a pair of State Department assistants, Stuart (John Carroll Lynch) and Brody (Jon Tenney) and sets out for India and Pakistan to find comedy in the Muslim world.

New Mt. Sinai Cemetery advertisement

Brooks finds himself in a cramped office of a run-down New Delhi office building, sharing a floor with — what else? — a call center. He starts out by interviewing a long list of applicants to find a secretary/research assistant. After talking to several unqualified candidates, he finds a qualified one, a woman in a Muslim head scarf, but then she pointedly asks if he is a Jew. Brooks stammers out “not right at this particular moment,” before he thanks her for her time and rushes her out the door. Brooks finally finds a gem in an eager, intelligent young woman named Maya (Sheetal Sheth). Brooks settles into his task of finding out what makes people here laugh, in one month’s time. Of course, things go badly from the start, despite his resourceful, eager young assistant who speaks several languages and has extensive research experience. After interviewing people randomly on the street, he decides to give a comedy concert, which allows Brooks to re-visit some of his early stand-up routines.

When I saw the preview for Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World in the movie theater, I thought “wow, what a great idea for a movie!” Sometimes, humor is very close to tragedy anyway, so the idea of defusing the tensions between the Muslim world and our world by looking at what makes people in their world laugh seemed like an inspired idea. Maybe sharing a laugh will help us find some common ground and ease tensions. The movie even has a great poster, with Brooks in Indian attire in front of a domed building, holding a mike on a stand as if it were a scimitar.

Albert Brooks is a smart funny man. He wrote, directed and stars in Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World. Much of the dialog is clever and funny, many situations are as layered with satirical meaning and subtext humor as you could want, and the overall point about self-absorbed, clueless Americans is very valid. Likewise it makes great comments on the cultural context of humor and the kind of humor that crosses cultural lines, often slapstick and visual jokes, the kind found in silent films. The film is full of satiric commentary and irony. I just wish it also had more laughs.

The film starts well and the first half has many comic gems but it loses steam mid way and begins to meander. While the lead character remains clueless about what makes these people laugh, we never get beyond hints that they laugh at many of the same things we laugh at. I was hoping we would get to see an Indian or Pakistani comic or comedy bit. Even a trip to meet some budding Pakistani comics lets us down by never letting them do their comedy. A bit about inadvertently creating a misunderstanding between long-standing enemies India and Pakistan seems a bit tacked on. Despite the funny and clever first half, his comedy takes us only half way to the expectations that the title, and the preview, led me to expect.

The character Brooks does not find comedy in the Muslim world, not because it is not there but because he does not know how to see it or where to look. This outcome works for the self- absorbed and egotistical character that director Albert Brooks plays but the filmmaker could have shown the audience some of the comedy that the central character misses. When he does his comedy concert, it bombs and Brooks thinks it must be because they do not speak English. Even when he learns this is not the reason, he does not get it, although the filmmaker makes sure we understand that it was the cultural context that was missing. When he is a big hit with a group of Pakistani comics, he thinks he has crossed the cultural comedy divide, overlooking the role that the hashish he and the Pakistanis were all smoking at the time might have played.

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is an intelligent, biting satire, even if it flags a bit after setting its clueless hero down in the Muslim world. Sometimes, Brooks gets everything right and the audience laughs at the right spot. But many of the film’s comic situations are so layered, so subtle, and so complex, that while they are clever when you reflect on them, they fail to have the comic timing they need to be funny right at the moment. Part of the problem is that while it is very clever and subtle, he might over-think some of the comedy and lose that other essential element of comedy, timing, that is needed to be funny. Many of Albert Brooks’s films succumb to this dilemma — they are very cleverly constructed, very sly and smart but they are so complex that by the time the audience has digested them, the moment for a laugh has passed.

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World cleverly and sardonically shows us how clueless Americans can be but it does not take the next step to give us some of that overlooked comedy in the Muslim world. It is still all about us.