Albert Brooks' 'Looking for Comedy' has joke on us
By Richard von Busack
At heart, every comedian would like to be thought of as the scapegoat who takes away the sins of the world. In Albert Brooks' controversial new film, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, which opens Jan. 20, Brooks tries to make a link with the Islamic world through a kind of self-sacrificial buffoonery.
To paraphrase Benjamin Disraeli, 1,500 years of Christian love have made the Muslims nervous. The idea of Brooks going to the Arab world and mocking its customs has had the Internet well-tizzied: "If this movie was called Looking for Comedy in the Jewish World and it was written by a Muslim and put out by a Muslim studio, it would be considered virulent anti-Semitism, and it would immediately be condemned by Hollywood," posts one inflamed correspondent to the Internet Movie Database.
In Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, the subject is, as always--at times to the point of weariness--Brooks himself. He plays a warped-mirror version of himself, a privileged American comic actor who is unhirable, aging out of the youth market, fonder of the charm of his happy household than of the ugly necessity of fighting for roles in movies.
He's facing the worrisome possibility that he's going to have "Here Lies the Voice of Marlin, Nemo the Fish's Dad" carved on his headstone. So "Brooks" is ready when the State Department calls him for an assignment. They ask him to go oversees to prepare a 500-page white paper on Muslim comedy, in an effort to get to know the rest of the world.
"As you know, the president has a great sense of humor." (The cut to Brooks' aghast face gets the biggest laugh in the movie.)
Going to India--where 150 million Muslims are a minority--Brooks is miffed at being treated like a second-class comic. Grousing at the affront of a too-small office, he tries to go native, duding himself up in pajamas and pointed elf-shoes, buttonholing men and women on the street in New Delhi to ask them what they think is funny. Despite the (inexplicably) clear-eyed belief in him displayed by his secretary Maya (Sheetal Sheth), he clumsily creates an international incident.
Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is built around the film's best sequence: Brooks' performance where he tries to make Muslims laugh through an abysmal standup act. Brooks detonates superlatively stenchy jokes: "Q: Why did they cancel Halloween in India? A: Because they got rid of the Gandhi!" In a reprise of a standup comedy routine he performed decades ago on The Ed Sullivan Show, he becomes a bullying improv comedian, overruling audience suggestions and making them ever more tragic.
Here is Brooks' first return to standup comedy in some 30 years. And here he faces the problem of being a pioneer who sees his land overdeveloped. Years ago, Brooks invented his own kind of anti-comedy. He perfected the character of a creepy entertainer, a figure one step beyond the self-fascinated persona of Jack Benny in Ernst Lubitsch's immortal To Be or Not to Be. But since then, dozens of performers have picked up on Brooks' act, from Andy Kaufman to Krusty the Klown. And that's just the funny K's.
When Brooks puts himself and the audience through the routine, it may not be funny-ha-ha and that may be the only test that matters. But the mortification in the ritual feels fresh. And Brooks has caught something vivid and essential to the American vibe: our desire to be applauded, our insistence on being arbiters of a worldwide taste. The joke is definitely on us, and the rest of the world can get a laugh out of it.
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