Late in his new film Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, Albert Brooks tells a man, "In comedy, it's okay to bomb. It's not the end of the world." Judging from the success rate of Looking, Brooks must use that phrase as a mantra. His comic abilities have been running cold for some time now, but he's never whiffed as fully as he does here.
This failure on Brooks's part is a shame, because he's devised a terrifically loaded premise. As always, Brooks plays a variation on himself — neurotic, passive-aggressive, worried about work. He thinks he's found a great opportunity for himself when the United States government comes calling; see, they want to try and understand Muslim culture, and what better way to do that than to figure out where their sense of humor lies? So Brooks finds himself trundled off to India on a diplomatic mission to crack up everyone he sees.
It is a fine idea, and one rife with sharp satirical content; alas, it's one whose comic possibilities are almost entirely skirted by Brooks. The concept Brooks runs with in Looking is that the citizens of India don't find him funny. That makes sense from a storytelling perspective, but it doesn't work for comic purposes. Take the big centerpiece where Brooks performs a comedy concert to an auditorium full of puzzled Indians — as Brooks flops and sweats, sputtering out creaky puns involving Gandhi or spinning out an endless 'improvisation,' the scene falls to pieces. The point, presumably, is that Brooks is bombing because he doesn't know anything culturally about his audience or what makes them laugh; the scene doesn't work, though, because the material is unfunny regardless of cultural persuasion.
Even the parts that aren't obviously routines are lacking in laughter. There's a running joke about a very long report that Brooks has to submit upon his return to the United States. Brooks's reaction upon learning of this report elicits no more than a mild chuckle, and the bit only gets more desperate every time he comes back to it (which is approximately every seven minutes). Looking runs aground on Brooks's tendencies towards shtick; every now and then, he'll bust out with a sharp joke (often related to his Jewishness in a land of Muslims) that indicates the kind of film this could have been, which hurts that much more when he retreats to the safety of the tired and the well-worn.
Intellectually, I can see what Brooks is doing. He's setting himself up as the ultimate Ugly American, a self-centered mensch blundering into foreign areas and trying to ingratiate himself without knowledge of the culture. The last scene, where Brooks is welcomed home as a hero, ignorant of the political chaos he's inadvertantly caused, drives this home. Brooks's films, like those of his East Coast counterpart Woody Allen, are often meaner and more self-eviscerating than they appear at first glance, and Looking carries on in this idiom. It does not, however, carry on Brooks's other tradition of being a funny guy.
There are some things that work within Looking. The setup is relatively amusing, and every now and then a stray line of dialogue will hit the target like the rest of the film should. ("In L.A., we have a drink called a Freeway. It's just like a Martini except it takes you three hours to get it.") And MVP status should be conferred upon Sheetal Sheeth, who plays Brooks's bright-eyed Indian assistant Maya. Her indefatiguable good cheer is the only thing that spurs Brooks into something resembling his old form. The film's high point comes in the scene where Brooks teaches Maya about sarcasm, which thrums with the life and sardonic verve that's absent from the rest of the punctured narrative.
None of this distracts from the big truth at the heart of Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World: Albert Brooks has deliberately made a comedy that is void of mirth. In a way, it's the end-all of masochistic self-castigatory gestures, invalidating one's own art in order to confirm his inferiority complex. But there's a sadistic element as well – the audience still has to sit through Brooks's cinematic seppuku.
About the DVD: The only special features on Warner's DVD of Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World are some rightfully deleted scenes and the film's trailer, which is more amusing than the film by virtue of being ninety minutes shorter. The picture and sound, though not the kind of thing you would use to demonstrate a new home theater system, are high quality.