There is so much sitcom slop at the multiplex this winter that Albert Brooks' Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World sounds damn near revolutionary. Sony Pictures passed on releasing it, leaving Warner Independent to pick up the challenge. Given the controversy, you'll be thrown at first by the surface blandness of this mock documentary. The laughs are decidedly hit-and-miss. But stick around, this satire knows how to bite you when you least expect it.
It's a "what if" comedy, as in what if George W. sent Brooks to India and Pakistan to do his stand-up act for the 300 million Muslims who live in the region? The goal being to learn what tickles the funny bone of a people the world has stereotyped as terrorists. Fred Dalton Thompson, the actor and former U.S. senator, spearheads the diplomatic mission, telling Brooks, "The president has a great sense of humor." The line gets the film's first belly laugh. For writing a 500-page report, Brooks will earn the Medal of Freedom. His wife (Amy Ryan) gives her blessing, and Brooks is off to New Delhi with two agents (John Carroll Lynch, Jon Tenney) and a Hindu assistant (Sheetal Sheth).
Onstage, doing the ventriloquist act that sparked his early career on TV variety shows, Brooks is met by a sea of blank faces. If these Muslims recognize him at all, it's from him voicing the role of the daddy fish in the animated Finding Nemo. The Brooks who ted his acting career with Taxi Driver and won an Oscar nomination for Broadcast News is as unknown to them as the Brooks who wrote, directed and red in hits d'estime such as Real Life, Modern Romance, Lost in America, Defending Your Life, Mother and The Muse. No wonder his verbal improv is lost on them. He fares better when the agents smuggle him across the border to meet at a secret campfire with Pakistani comics who listen to his act with a simultaneous translation.
The plot plays like the early fish-out-of-water farces of Bob Hope and Woody Allen. The defining difference here is that Brooks makes sure the joke is always on the obtuse version of himself that he's playing, and by extension every American who stays willfully blind to other cultures. This Brooks is a comedian who forgets the golden rule of "know your audience." He thinks he'll get his laughs if he keeps doing the same act with better lighting. Shot in India, the film provides a rare glimpse of the Taj Mahal, which Brooks, typically, walks past without noticing. He's insulted when Al Jazeera offers him a sitcom about an American living among Muslims called That Darn Jew. Brooks builds the joke as a reverse whammy. Since 9/11, the media have treated us to countless variations of That Darn Muslim, an easy villain pigeonholed as bomb-throwing fanatic. That's Brooks' comic gift: He knows how to make a laugh stick in your throat.