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LOOKING FOR COMEDY IN A MUSLIM WORLD

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Albert Brooks, Sheetal Sheth, Jon Tenny
Director: Albert Brooks
Audio: English
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Video: Color, matted widescreen
Studio: Warner Bros
Features: Theatrical trailer, deleted scenes
Length: 98 minutes
Release Date: August 29, 2006

"He's obviously not a professional comedian."

Film ***

Everyone loves the proverbial fish-out-of-water tale.  There's nothing funnier than watching a dolt taken completely out of his element and struggling not to appear like a total buffoon.  Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is the story of one such sorry sap, a nave American goodwill ambassador shipped halfway across the globe to discover what amuses the other half of humanity.

Directed by Albert Brooks, starring Albert Brooks as...well...Albert Brooks, this film parlays low-key comedy into a parody of real-world politics and international relationships.  The self-deprecating version of Brooks who occupies the role of the film's ambassador is a lovable loser, an aging, out-of-work screen comedian with zippo box office appeal, primarily because he is no longer particularly funny.  When even a light-weight director like Penny Marshall (in a cameo appearance) refuses to cast Brooks in a light-weight remake of Harvey, remarking scornfully that Albert Brooks is "no James Stewart," there can be little doubt of Brooks' over-the-hill status.

But apparently, one man still needs yet another over-the-hill comedian, and that man is none other than Uncle Sam.  A special U.S. committee comes calling for Brooks' services, and he decides to accept their assignment - travel to India and Pakistan and find out what tickles a Hindu's funny bone.  Hardly the virile makings of a James Bond thriller, but this mission is part of a master plan to facilitate better understanding between divergent cultures and societies.  No publicity is bad publicity for a celebrity, even a fading one, so naturally, Brooks is all gung-ho for the task at hand.

The premise for this tale is, of course, quite preposterous.  Why would the U.S. government be interested in humorous Hindus?  Where's the national security threat in that?  Nevertheless, this essential absurdity (and many other similarly-understated examples of dry humor sprinkled throughout the film) provide this unassuming little comedy with its charm.

Recruited in India to be Brooks' assistant is the perpetually-sunshiny Maya (Sheetal Sheth).  Her unflappable chirpiness in spite of the worst jokes delivered by the hapless Brooks is hilarious.  For Maya, there's never a cloud in the sky, even as Brooks slowly sinks in a torrential deluge of his own soggy jokes.

While in India, Brooks sets about interviewing random Indians on the street and planning a comedy show, too.  Never mind that the Indian government increasingly suspects Brooks of espionage activity.  Brooks is simply a man who has no clue whatsoever.  He is an oblivious but good-natured fellow who succeeds (and fails) in spite of himself.  In his wake, he will eventually leave two nuclear-powered nations on the brink of armed conflict.

The film builds up to its supposedly grand payola, a Brooks stage skit delivered before a glazy-eyed audience of incredulous Indians.  Oddly, this monologue is also the film's most unfunny segment, although perhaps intentionally so.  The "humor" is profoundly pathetic (anyone who has seen the original theatrical trailer is already familiar with the sole funny line in the entire monologue).

How bad is this skit? It's so bad, it's like being held hostage to a lousy conversation at a high school reunion.  It's like listening to a particular wretched audition on American Idol with a malfunctioning mute button.  It's like being forced to eat boiled chicken liver.

Brooks bombs so badly, the Indian government in retaliation mobilizes for war.  Really.  That's some bomb!

One wonders how this film might have turned out in the hands of a master of social satire, such as director Preston Sturges (see Sullivan's Travels, for instance).  That said, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is still an effectively amusing film, although its humor may not be readily appreciated by audiences seeking coarser or lewder chuckles.  The film misfires on occasion and fails to fully exploit the comic potential of its quirky fish-out-of-water premise.  Nevertheless, there are still many delightful moments - any scene between Brooks and the cheery Maya, a montage of crazy interview clips, a Brooks kidnapping by Pakistani militants, and wildly, even a negotiation with al-Jazeera Television to create a sitcom about a Jewish man living in India!  Through it all, Albert Brooks dead-pans and double-takes like no one else today!

Of course, if the decidedly understated humor in Looking for Comedy is not your cup of tea, there is always Borat.

Video ***

The video quality is par for the course and nothing spectacular.  Images are crisp with natural flesh tones.  The overall appearance is serviceable enough in a matted widescreen format that approximates the film's theatrical aspect ratio.

Audio **

This film is not designed to tax any home sound system.  The audio is adequate and nothing more.

Features *

Aside from the theatrical trailer, there are a paltry four minutes of worthless deleted scenes.

Summary:

Looking for Comedy in a Muslim World is a low-key and generally good-natured comedy about misperceptions and sociopolitical misunderstandings.  It's also the reverse-Borat.  Overall, this latest offering from actor-director Albert Brooks is passably pleasant if not exceptionally memorable.

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