(PG-13) 2.5 Stars

Ed Johnson-Ott

Looking for comedy in... 'Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World'

I've only written three fan letters in my life: to Rod Argent of The Zombies, to Groucho Marx and to Albert Brooks. All three wrote back, indicating either that I was unusually lucky or that celebrities are more responsive to their admirers than some believe them to be.

My letter to Brooks was triggered by one of his hilarious early career appearances on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. After some questions about his writing techniques, I asked if he had any plans to appear in Indianapolis. In his cheery reply, he explained his writing style and concluded his note by saying, "As a matter of fact, I will be appearing in Indianapolis. I'll be driving a blue '57 Chevy in the 500."

In a perfect world, a story like that would be followed by a glowing review of Brooks' new movie, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World. Alas, this is not a perfect world. Of the seven films written and directed by Albert Brooks — Real Life (1979), Modern Romance (1981), Lost in America (1985), Defending Your Life (1991), Mother (1996) and The Muse (1999) — this is one of his weakest. There are laughs in Looking for Comedy, to be sure, but not enough of them. Sadly, the bulk of the film consists of tepid gags attached to a plodding storyline.

As is his norm, Brooks plays a neurotic soul with grand ideas. This time he plays a fictionalized version of himself, a relatively successful (co-lead in The In-Laws and head fish in Finding Nemo), but still struggling actor looking for a new role to help support his family. The film opens as Brooks tries to convince director Penny Marshall that he would be the perfect Jimmy Stewart type for the lead role in her planned remake of Harvey. The scene is painfully funny and tightly written; the rest of the film is not.

Back home after the failed meeting, Brooks receives a letter from the government asking for a meeting with him in Washington. At the State Department, committee head politician/actor Fred Dalton Thompson explains the proposal: In order to better understand the Muslims, the government would like to fly Brooks to India and Pakistan, countries with large Muslim populations, where he will do research for a 500-page report on what makes them laugh.

Though Brooks finds the prospect of writing 500 pages daunting, even when he is assured that nobody will read the report ("but they'll weigh it"), the possibility of earning with the Medal of Freedom ("with the ribbons?") for his service is enough to convince him.

The trip goes wrong from the beginning. Due to a snafu, Brooks and the State Department officials working with him, Stuart (John Carrol Lynch), and Mark (Jon Tenney), end up in coach rather than first-class for the long flight to New Delhi. Once in India, he ends up in a small office in a run-down building. After hiring bright, enthusiastic Maya (Sheetal Sheth) as his assistant, Brooks sets out on his mission and the movie goes down the tubes.

After a series of dull interviews with people on the street, Brooks decides to stage a concert, try out a variety of approaches to comedy and see which ones work. Brooks does stand-up and some deconstructionist comedy, but what chance is there for bits like "The World's Worst Ventriloquist" or "The Improv Comic That Ignores the Suggestions He Solicited from the Audience" to work if the crowd doesn't understand the concept?

Yes, I realize that Brooks' gaffes are supposed to be the source of most of the humor in the fish-out-of-water comedy, but even a character as clueless as his would not be that stupid. As a result, most of his mistakes simply seem annoying and boorish rather than comically awkward.

There is more, including a trip to the Taj Mahal that rips off a joke from National Lampoon's Vacation, for Christ's sake, but I'll stop here. Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World offers no insights and far too few laughs. Albert Brook is a phenomenal talent. He has produced numerous works of comic brilliance in the past and I have faith that he will do so in the future. What a shame that this one is such a let-down.


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