Despite its potentially provocative title, “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World” is in fact a very mild satire by Albert Brooks, in which he plays himself, sent by the U.S. government on a “fact-finding” trip to India and Pakistan to gain data on what Moslems find humorous. (The goal supposedly is to improve relations with the Moslem world through increased understanding.) Of course, not only do Brooks’s clueless ineptitude and the lack of official support undermine the chances of any substantive information being collected, but the mission also inadvertently causes a military crisis in the region.
Throughout the picture, done in a slow, meandering style suited to Brooks’s dyspeptic persona, the filmmaker-comic’s typically deadpan, self-deprecating approach brings some chuckles. But overall the movie is just too soft and dilatory to generate anything more than an occasional smile. There’s a moment toward the opening, for example, when Brooks, summoned to Washington, does a fine double-take when Fred Dalton Thompson, who’s interviewing him, mentions the “common knowledge” about President Bush’s great sense of humor. And later on, when Brooks is asked to visit the offices of Al-Jazeera under the mistaken assumption that the station wants to interview him about his project and learns instead that they want to feel him out about starring in a proposed sitcom called “That Darned Jew,” the scene works. But even the better gags are milked too far. Brooks’s meager office accommodations, for instance, take him past a suite where Indian “customer service” operators are busily handling calls pouring in to American companies. Out-sourcing is nicely skewered the first time he’s taken aback by the chattering voices. But the joke is repeated all too often, without change. A bit like this needs to build somehow, but Brooks doesn’t bother ratcheting it up at all; he simply reiterates it, thinking that his reactions provide sufficient variety. They don’t. And the continuous klutziness of his American handlers, played by John Carroll Lynch and Jon Tenney, gets old, too, though at first it’s an amusing, if tepid, take on officialdom. Similarly, the first appearance of Brooks’s incredulity at the expectation that he’ll provide a five-hundred page report on his mission will cause you to crack a smile; but the sixth or seventh time he offers a similar reaction, you’re likely to remain in stony silence.
On the other hand, some bits don’t work at all. An early-on interview Brooks has with Penny Marshall (looking terrible), supposedly for the Jimmy Stewart part in a remake of “Harvey,” falls flat (though at least it slams his awful remake of “The In-Laws”). A big set-piece–in which Brooks does a disastrous comic set before a nearly-silent Indian audience–bombs about as badly as he does. The point’s clear–that he doesn’t even realize how badly he’s doing–but that doesn’t really make the performance of awful “material” (a hapless bit of ventriloquism, a supposed improvisation in which Brooks arbitrarily alters every element of the premise the audience has provided) any funnier. It lays there on the screen, more painful than jovial. And an elaborate sequence in which Brooks crosses the Indian-Pakistani border illegally to meet Pakistani “comedians”–an episode that, we learn, causes the countries to raise their threat levels–offers very few laughs; and “Dr. Strangelove” quality, it’s not.
Brooks doesn’t do much for his supporting cast. Lynch and Tenney mug a bit much, and Sheetal Sheth, as Maya, his enthusiastic local assistant, looks lovely but is hobbled by her character’s inexplicable reverence for Brooks. (A subplot involving her jealous Iranian boyfriend is dreadful, too–more nasty than funny). Nor does Amy Ryan, as Brooks’s e-Bay-addicted wife, have anything to work with.
Technically the picture is pretty scruffy. But the wanness in that department is characteristic of the film as a whole. Perhaps if “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World” had really confronted the realities of its premise by being set in Pakistan, or an Arab country, rather than India (not exactly the center of Islam, after all), it might have been more pointed and biting. As it is, the political thrust of the premise is defanged, and the movie becomes a toothless vehicle for Brooks’s characteristic drowsy-eyed shtick.