Early in "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World", Albert Brooks learns part of his assignment will involve writing a 500 page report. Brooks doubts if he will be able to come up with enough material for the report. Will he be able to come up with enough jokes to wrestle this 500 pound gorilla and win?
Albert Brooks finds himself between movies when he receives a letter from the State Department asking him to meet with a new commission in Washington, DC. He meets with the head of the commission, former Senator Fred Dalton Thompson, and learns the government wants him to travel to India and Pakistan, stay for a month, and learn what makes Muslim people laugh. After he learns the secret, he is to write a 500 page report. His payment for a job well done? The Medal of Freedom. Upon his arrival, he finds it hard to communicate and decides to put on a comedy concert, to help him learn first hand what Muslim people think is funny. Soon, he begins to attract the attention of both the Indian and Pakistani governments.
"Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World", Albert Brooks' new film, is a better concept than finished film. Brooks is able to mine the material for laughs, but I think any average comedian would be able to achieve the same results. What Brooks brings to the film is his self-effacing persona, his ability to laugh at himself and Hollywood, which is only successful part of the time, leading to an uneven film.
A 500 page report? The longest thing he ever wrote was for high school and it didn't even begin to approach 500 pages? Can he even come up with that many jokes? Can he come up with enough jokes to fill a 90 minute film?
The set-up is good. Brooks is initially delighted and surprised to receive the invitation from the commission, leading to many amusing jokes about his career, the state of his career, and his life at home. His wife, Laura (Emma Lockhart), an e-Bay-aholic urges him to go to Washington, to find out what they would like him to do.
Upon his arrival, he learns his assignment is to travel to India and Pakistan, stay for a month, find out what makes the Muslim people laugh, and write a really long report. Naturally, this sequence delivers a few jokes aimed at the government and sets-up a recurring theme which is, initially, funny, but tires very fast. The fact that the government, in their effort to understand the Muslim population of the World, is attempting to figure out what makes them laugh, is funny, but also scary because it seems so real. Can we really assume this is fictional?
500 pages! Brooks has trouble getting his mind around that figure. What can he write to fill 500 pages? Does he even have that much material?
The government promises first class transportation and accommodations throughout. When Brooks finds himself wedged next to two escorts from the State Department (John Carroll Lynch and Jon Tenney) in coach, the situation is initially funny. But the more Brooks carries on; the joke loses its impact. When he finds his new office is very run down and ill-equipped (no computer, let alone Wi-Fi), Brooks becomes even more sarcastic. Initially, this is funny, but the more he complains, the more annoying he becomes. He doesn't seem to realize that large numbers of Americans can only make such a trip by traveling in economy next to the crying, coughing children. When he arrives in India, his eyes seem to miss the equally squalid conditions surrounding him. When he complains, he comes to resemble the classic stereotype of the Ugly American.
Upon his arrival in New Delhi, the comedian interviews many people interested in becoming his assistant, providing an amusing, yet uneven sequence. Ultimately, he decides upon Maya (Sheetal Sheth, the Indian equivalent of the Julie Haggerty character in most of Brooks' films), an enthusiastic woman who wants to be a journalist. She provides him with a running total of the number of pages completed throughout the film.
Soon, Brooks decides to hold a free comedy concert, using all of his material, to help him determine what makes Muslim people laugh. The State Department co-horts find a school auditorium for him to use and Maya prints flyers for them to hand out. On the night of the concert, the auditorium is packed and Brooks begins his routine. Bombing horribly, he decides to check to see how many people speak English. The majority of the attendees raise their hands. He's in trouble. The concert sequence is funny, but only because it goes terribly wrong. When we realize this, and the sequence continues, and continues, and continues, it becomes annoying. The material is bad and when Brooks continues with it, banging us over the head with the joke, it just becomes tedious.
There are running jokes throughout; the State Department's inability to provide Brooks with anything he needs to complete his assignment, the continuing inability to bridge the communication barrier, Brooks dealing with the Indian population's idea of who is and who isn't famous, etc. Some of these ideas work, briefly, but when Brooks returns to them again and again, they lose a lot of their impact and begin to resemble extended skits on "Saturday Night Live", you know, the type that are funny one-joke premises but continue for ten or more minutes?
The concept of the film is amusing, but I have to wonder if it might have been more successful as a real documentary. The idea of Albert Brooks, as a character, in a fiction film, being played by Albert Brooks, allows the actor to take some critical digs at his career and he does his same shtick, but that's about it. He doesn't get what people are saying to him, leading to his trademark deadpan expression (funny), but then it goes on and on, and on. When he arrives in India, he realizes more people know him as the voice of Nemo's father. Funny, but, again, the joke goes on, and on.
By making the film fiction, with Brooks and others playing themselves, yet actors playing his wife, State Department officials, his Indian assistant, etc., the film resembles an extended episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm". This isn't necessarily a bad thing, if it were as funny as an episode of the HBO hit, but it isn't. By a long shot.
At one point, Brooks travels to Pakistan to meet with a group of aspiring comics. This idea is rife with possibilities, but the filmmaker doesn't seem to have the skill to back it up. As he performs his routine, his audience laughs and laughs, but the set-up for this scene robs the laughter of any legitimacy.
Towards the end of the film, it becomes clear he will never be able to write the 500 hundred page report. Maya indicates he maybe has four or five pages when circumstances force him to leave and return home. A brief Coda indicates that the report was six pages. And he didn't receive the Medal of Freedom. The ending is handled in such an amateurish way, I find it hard to write about. At a certain point, Brooks clearly seems to run out of ideas and the film has to end, so he ends it very quickly, in a way that seems all too forced and rushed. It almost feels like he was embarrassed and wanted to end the film in a hurry. I know I was embarrassed when I watched it.
Brooks never finishes his report and is unable to wrestle his metaphorical 500 pound gorilla. Brooks' metaphorical gorilla is called "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World."