Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World

Opens Fri., Jan. 20, at Metro and Meridian

Albert Brooks is a kind of anticomedian who blazed a trail for Steve Martin, Spinal Tap, and all those self-lacerating showbiz folk who mock their own methods, often in mockumentaries. He started out with inept ventriloquists and Hollywood egomaniacs, then shifted to satirizing everyday life, slightly anticipating Jerry Seinfeld. His movies (Real Life, Modern Romance, Lost in America) are about nothing but the minutiae of life, the nuances of neurosis.

He was commendably bold and well-meaning to concoct a movie about the lighter side of Islam as the Islamic world darkens into hope-free horror. But his gift is to send up his own culture. He's lost in India. That's where his character, named Albert Brooks, goes on an improbable U.S. government mission to find out what makes Muslims laugh, so that we might better understand them. His ventriloquist act bombs in New Delhi; Al-Jazeera tries to recruit him for a sitcom called That Darn Jew; nobody gets him, and he doesn't get them.

Most of the film is slightly amusing in a cautiously toothless way. He wouldn't have gotten permission to film at the Taj Mahal and the Pakistan Embassy if his script had been offensive. That's the joke: Brooks gets increasingly jittery as he utterly, crashingly fails to be funny or learn a darn thing about humor, whether Islamic or Hindu. When he visits a secret mountain redoubt in Pakistan (actually India), he meets some aspiring Pakistani comics who pretend to be abducting him for execution.

Finally the movie develops some bite—make 'em laugh or lose your head, American Jew!—but it just devolves into shtick, as the Pakistanis pressure him to smoke hashish and do his routine. Turns out these jihadists are about as threatening as the Friars Club. Brooks just isn't willing to tread genuinely dangerous ground. (And there was no way he could film in the real Middle East.)

Even though there are 100 million or so Muslims in India, the movie has a generically Indian look and feel, and Sheetal Sheth is charming as Brooks' joke-impervious assistant. But the film doesn't capture a single whiff of Islam. Plot was never Brooks' long suit, and the India-Pakistan border tensions he causes by saying, "It's OK to bomb!" only proves it's not OK to bomb in comedy. (PG-13)

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