In Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, Albert Brooks makes his alter ego (“Albert Brooks”) the butt of every joke, which generates big laughs and progressively smaller returns. That’s too bad, because the movie has a wonderfully fertile premise, a synthesis of all the anxieties of Brooks’s previous movies (lack of professional status, dwindling finances, a dearth of inspiration, a pervasive sense of his own schmuckiness)—raised to a higher power by the post-9/11 fear of a billion or so people whose culture is unnervingly alien, especially to secular American Jews.
Brooks is a pioneer in the cinema du squirm, an artist who tracks his romantic illusions—and neurotic delusions—so obsessively that he becomes his own White Whale. When his approach pays off, as in his excruciatingly hilarious road movie Lost in America, he transcends his own peculiar psyche; he becomes every starry-eyed baby-boomer who embarks on a journey of discovery and discovers he can’t journey beyond his own head. But self-satire is a precarious art, sensitive to mood swings. At one extreme, there’s genuine soul-searching; at the other, a kind of self-flagellation that’s a different form of narcissism. These days, Brooks wants to humiliate himself before anyone else can, and he’s making a fetish of it, devoting so much energy to demonstrating what a loser and a fool he is that he sucks up all the oxygen onscreen. He forgets that satire doesn’t soar if the characters have no stature.
Brooks plays a worst-case cartoon of himself in Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World: an aging Hollywood writer, director, and actor with few prospects for work and a wife (Amy Ryan) addicted to winning eBay auctions for luxury items. So he jumps at an offer from the State Department (delivered by actor and former U.S. senator Fred Dalton Thompson, as himself) to travel to India and Pakistan to ascertain what Muslims find funny—the idea being that the U.S. has spied on and fought with them but never tried to disarm them with gags.
For the first half, the movie is good, discomfiting fun. “Brooks” (the character) seizes on the likelihood of receiving a Medal of Freedom from the government, even as he blanches at having to file a 500-page report—although it’s a measure of the movie’s low ambition that writing the paper haunts him more deeply than anything in India. You’re primed for a tricky collision between two ways of looking at the world (and the next world), but the protagonist’s idea of research is collaring Muslims at random on New Delhi streets and asking what’s funny. The Muslims stare blankly at his own jokes—which would have been more amusing if, early on, Hollywood executives hadn’t also received his quips with frozen faces. In Brooks’s last film, The Muse, his screenwriter hero receives a humanitarian award, holds it up, and crows, “I’m the king of the room!”—and the L.A. audience looks on impassively, as if no one gets the reference. This guy can’t find a decent house.
Or maybe he’s not looking for one. Defeatism has always been in Brooks’s blood. As a stand-up, 30 years ago, he mined his fear of failure (and impatience with the form) by doing incomprehensible mime, along with ventriloquism in which he chattered away while his dummy drank water. This postmodern and in-jokey act is what he chooses to perform in India, and it might have been a stitch for about five minutes. But it’s the movie’s big set piece. As “Brooks” bickers about flyers and nonexistent dressing rooms, I thought of all the avenues he wasn’t going down. He could have unwittingly blasphemed—or maybe cast Shazia Mirza, the devout, London-based Muslim comedienne who gets death threats and silences hecklers with “You ever heard of a fatwa?”
The character of “Brooks” is clearly meant to represent the solipsistic Ugly American, but the way the writer-director handles the Indians (and a few Pakistanis, in the course of a furtive border crossing) gives no indication that he explored the culture himself. A potentially splendid foil, a young Muslim assistant named Maya (Sheetal Sheth), turns out to be insipidly eager to please. (He teaches her the Western art of sarcasm.) And the Indian culture gives him nothing to play against. Articles have hyped the brass it took to make this movie, but even in the film the protagonist acknowledges that India is primarily Hindu. It’s also the home of Bollywood—not exactly a cultural backwater.
The director makes brilliant sport of customer-service jobs outsourced to India. And a meeting with three Al Jazeera executives is Brooks at his increasingly deflated best. But he resorts to one dispiriting plot turn: About two-thirds of the way into the picture, “Brooks” directs Maya to pad the dreaded report with the history of India. The problem is not that it’s a scam; it’s that it’s a dull-witted scam. Even if the character is set up to fail, he should fail spectacularly, the way Brooks’s documentary filmmaker in Real Life does, hysterically burning down his subjects’ house to give his film-within-a-film a big finish. Brooks is looking for comedy in all the wrong places. He’s no longer his own White Whale. He’s something slower, in a shell—his own turtle.