It takes a while to get into the swing of Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World. But then, it takes a while to get situated inside any Albert Brooks movie.
It's partly because he takes so long between directing jobs that we forget his films' weird rhythms - his last trip behind the lens was The Muse in 1999 - and partly because it's always strange to encounter a comedian who doesn't plead with us to love him. If he did, do you think he'd stick with a title as alienating as "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World"?
Or that he'd open the movie with a scene in which, playing himself - Albert Brooks, movie star and voice from Finding Nemo - he's blown off by director Penny Marshall (also playing herself). She's readying a remake of Harvey and Brooks wants in.
"I saw Big on cable," he offers.
"I loved The In-Laws," she lies.
End of audition.
"Don't you want me to read lines with an actor?" he asks.
"That's all right," she says, "I'll just watch The In-Laws again."
But then I'm a sucker for self-referential Hollywood gags, and that's the Albert Brooks persona - going on 40 years now. He strains to be ingratiating. He embarrasses himself in the service of drawing laughs out of an audience that would rather he'd just slink away and die.
He feeds on this. He instigates.
In Looking for Comedy, he has a long scene in which, with almostAndy Kaufman-ish perversity, he does a stand-up routine in New Delhi and the audience does not laugh at a single joke, with reason.
"Why is there no Halloween in India?" Brooks asks and waits.
"They took away the Gandhi!"
Actually, the reasons that's bad are just too numerous to count.
Yet he plows forward, digging himself deeper and deeper. Brooks is that quintessential comic for whom, as is often written, dying is easy, comedy is hard. This is what we like about him; or maybe this is what we hate about him. Consensus on Albert Brooks is rare ground.
Nemo aside, the man is best known for his role in Broadcast News in which, as a network news reporter filling in as anchor, he practically drowns in his flop sweat. But to a child of the '70s, to me anyway, the image of Brooks in my head is a short he made for Saturday Night Live: To better serve his audience, he tours living rooms, testing material in person. He's driven out to screams of, "I hate your guts! I hate everything about you!" It's not self-effacing in schticky Bob Hope fashion. Or the result of obliviousness, the way Steve Martin would pretend. Brooks wants you to squirm in laughter.
Pain first, then laughs.
Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World must be something like a record - you cringed the instant you heard the title, and in the wake of the rioting and protests over those Danish cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, maybe you recoiled again.
Sony Pictures certainly did; the studio initially intended to distribute Brooks' film and then backed out (and Warner Independent stepped in) when the filmmaker wouldn't change the title. He was smart to hold out.
It's one of his best jokes.
Brooks isn't about to be the art world's next shameless provocateur; he chooses his cheap shots very carefully. His jokes are squarely aimed at his own narcissism and the United States, and in a broad sense, the way misunderstanding is at the root of everything people do anywhere when they approach a foreign culture.
In the opening scenes, Brooks is summoned to the State Department on a top-secret mission. He's met by former Congressman Fred Dalton Thompson (who was an actor before he was a U.S. Senator). He's back from retirement, he explains. If you hadn't noticed, he goes on, the President is unable to connect meaningfully with Muslims. And he's tried everything.
Spying and war hasn't worked, so they've concluded the only way to "really understand somebody is to see what makes them laugh." Why Brooks? He's got nothing else going on. Will there be a medal? Yes, the Medal of Honor. But first he has to write a 500-page report. And fly coach to India. Isn't India largely Hindu? Yes, but there are Muslims there.
He hires a translator (a radiant Sheetal Sheth) who encourages him (and has an Iranian boyfriend who hates him).
They hit the streets and stop people and ask what makes them laugh and draw blank stares and muttering, and for a while the picture moves at that casual, curious pace. They don't find laughs so much as bang into them. So there are as many missed opportunities as there are bull's-eyes. An eleventh-hour nuclear brinkmanship plot feels desperate. And for a guy whose act is predicated on how big he bombs, he never quite fails spectacularly.
But I laughed, a lot. Or rather, I chuckled some and laughed some. There's a terrific bit with the Arabic-language television station al-Jazeera that would kill a weaker picture; and if you want a cheap tour of India, not just the monuments but the suburbs, you could do worse. What makes Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World sing, however, is the way it draws together the themes of Brooks' older films - fear of failure, worries about a flagging career, romantic dreams of meaningful work - to make a point that, for once, looks beyond the world of Albert Brooks.
Of course there's comedy in the Muslim world. The title is a subtle jab at the cultural laziness that leads to wondering such a thing. On the other hand, after a week of riots and burning effigies across Europe and the Middle East, you can't get more timely than a comedian wondering if irony can be translated and truly curious about the reply.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org