Four years after 9/11, actor-director Albert Brooks takes a humorous stab at defusing the equation Muslim equals terrorist in "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World." Pic is well-timed to catch a wave of rethinking facile stereotypes. But though it risks political incorrectness every step of the way, film is more a pleasant laugher than a sharp-edged satire.

Four years after 9/11, actor-director Albert Brooks takes a humorous stab at defusing the equation Muslim equals terrorist in “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World.” Pic is well-timed to catch a wave of rethinking facile stereotypes. But though it risks political incorrectness every step of the way, film is more a pleasant laugher than a sharp-edged satire, and many international auds may be disappointed to find the action is set not in the Mideast but in India.

Stateside, where Warner Independent distribs after Sony took a pass, fearing controversy, pic’s bold topicality should widen Brooks’ audience base beyond his last helming effort, “The Muse.” Film leapt its first hurdle when it went down sans dissent at its Dubai fest world preem Thursday. U.S. release is set for Jan. 20.

As in many of Brooks’ films, the writing sparkles more than the serviceable direction. Here Brooks plays the ambiguous mockumentary game, casting himself as a film actor named Albert Brooks who has appeared in “The In-Laws” and lent his voice to a fish in “Finding Nemo.” His humiliating meeting with director Penny Marshall (as herself) and his own casting director Victoria Burrows ends with Brooks being derisively blown off for a remake of “Harvey.”

Unemployed, with a big house, a daughter and a wife (Amy Ryan) addicted to eBay, Albert finds himself summoned to Washington by the State Department. The officials there promise not money but a medal if he travels to India and Pakistan to write a 500-page report on Muslim humor for the president.

What looks like a posh assignment sours almost immediately. Albert finds himself squeezed into economy class on the airplane with his State Dept. handlers, Stuart (John Carroll Lynch) and Mark (Jon Tenney). Their “help” always comes with a sizable down-side, like the crummy office they rent for him next to a call center in New Delhi.

After hiring an enthusiastic young Hindu woman, Maya (Sheetal Sheth), as his assistant, Brooks hits the streets to talk to people and ask what makes them laugh — with predictably dismal results. Undaunted, he stages his own stand-up comedy routines for a local audience that never even chuckles. (These are such meta-spoofs on stand-up comedy that the film’s auds may find them puzzling, too.)

Finally, Albert’s trip to Pakistan falls through when his handlers can’t get him a visa. Instead, they smuggle him across the border at night to have a secret meeting with local comedians, who turn out to be the only ones who find him hilarious — even in translation.

Film’s only venture into potential controversy involves Albert’s visit to Al-Jazeera, the Arab TV news channel, where he’s offered a role in a new sitcom, “That Darn Jew,” about an American Jewish man who moves into a Muslim neighborhood. This scene is funny because it finally touches a nerve, something the film generally seems loathe to do.

As if trying to maintain a diplomatic balance, Brooks pokes as much fun at the Americans as he does the poker-faced Indians and giggly, hash-smoking Pakistanis. The tightly structured script only over-reaches itself when it strays into the territory of international diplomatic incidents, suggesting Albert was unwittingly responsible for the military build-up on the Indo-Pak border and a near-nuclear war. There just isn’t enough material to make this idea funny — and it invites unflattering comparison with the grand black humor of Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove.”

A more serious puzzle is what the film, which was shot in India, has to do with the Muslim world. India has a significant Muslim minority but the people Albert meets come from a potpourri of religious backgrounds. Maybe the point is that the president’s question has no answer, and that people, far from being the same all over the world, can’t be pigeon-holed so easily. But the film is left with a big soft spot in the middle, because we never find out what makes Muslims — or anyone else — laugh.

With a plethora of good lines and absurd situations, Brooks can afford to play smart and straight as a self-deprecating detective in search of comedy. Sheth beams like a ray of sunshine as Albert’s chirpy assistant, who’s as bright and free-thinking as she is eye-catchingly pretty. Lynch and Tenney have far less interesting roles as the State Dept. boys, and both bumble too little for their comic good.

Editor Anita Brandt Burgoyne keeps things running briskly. Other tech work is unobtrusive.

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World

Production

A Warner Independent Pictures release of a Shangri-La Entertainment production. Produced by Herb Nanas. Executive producer, Joann Perritano. Directed, written by Albert Brooks.

Crew

Camera (color), Thomas Ackerman; editor, Anita Brandt Burgoyne; music, Michael Giacchino; production designer, Stephen Altman; costume designer, Deborah Everton; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS Digital), Dan Wallin, Mike Aarvold ; assistant director, Eric Tignini; casting, Victoria Burrows, Scot Boland. Reviewed at Dubai Film Festival (Operation Cultural Bridge), Dec. 15, 2005. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 98 MIN.

With

Albert Brooks - Albert Brooks Maya - Sheetal Sheth Stuart - John Carroll Lynch Mark - Jon Tenney
With: Homie Doroodian, Amy Ryan, Fred Dalton Thompson, Penny Marshall, Victoria Burrows, Avinash Kaur, Juliet Touzene, Sunny Raina, Rima Laham, Duncan Bravo, Kevin Mukherji, Barbara Ali, Kavi Raz.

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