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Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (A Movie Review)

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World


Starring Albert Brooks John Carroll Lynch, Sheetal Sheth, Jon Tenney, Fred Dalton Thompson, Amy Ryan, Homie Doroodian, Kavi Raz, Emma Lockhart and Penny Marshall.

Screenplay by Albert Brooks.

Directed by Albert Brooks.

Distributed by Warner Independent Pictures. 98 minutes. Rated PG-13.

The divide between the Eastern and Western world has become so cavernous that just the title of this movie is kind of shocking. In the United States, the words comedy and Muslim have become rather mutually exclusive. Albert Brooks had a rather subversive idea in this world where terms like “Axis of Evil” are being bandied about. Why not try to understand the Muslims as people? What makes them tick? What makes them laugh? Do they like sugar in their coffee? Do they like rock or rap? Paper or plastic? Why do they hate us so much? And could they still hate us if we got a pie in the face?

It’s an interesting idea. One of the oldest rules in conflict is to get to know your enemy. In this surreal new comedy, comedian Albert Brooks plays an unemployed comedian named Albert Brooks, who is approached by the government to go to India and Pakistan and figure out what exactly it is that makes the natives laugh. He is asked by a former-Senator-turned actor named Fred Dalton Thompson (who is played by former-Senator-turned-actor Fred Dalton Thompson, a.k.a. the current D.A. on Law and Order.)

The job is of course way above Brooks’ head, but he gives it the old college try, making a fool out of himself, bombing completely as a comedian and mistakenly causing an international incident.

This isn’t the first time that Brooks has played a character called Albert Brooks, he also did it in his debut feature Real Life. I say a character named Albert, because the man is a wicked satire of the writer/director, but isn’t exactly him, any more than John Malkovich really played himself in Being John Malkovich or even Jennifer Tilly portrayed herself in Seed of Chucky. Albert Brooks in the film may share a filmography with the star (leading to some wonderfully self-mocking quips about The In-Laws) but he is a mock version, a larger-than-life cartoon.

Brooks’ assignment is assisted by two uptight G-men, hilariously played by John Carroll Lynch and Jon Tenney. When they get to India, they hire a native assistant (played by the luminously beautiful and wonderfully innocent-seeming Sheetal Sheth) and rent out an office in the slums of town. Some of the funniest moments – in an extremely funny film – come from a throwaway running gag about a call-center in the same building as Brooks’ dilapidated office. I won’t ruin the laugh by explaining more, just suffice it to say that it is one of those rare recurring jokes in film which actually gets stronger and funnier the more that it is milked, and it leads to some of the biggest chuckles I’ve heard in a theater in a long time.

This is all followed by some wonderfully awkward attempts of Brooks to fit in, ingratiate himself with the Muslim people, and find out what makes them laugh. Brooks sensibly makes the Muslims seem intelligent, smart and approachable. Any mocking he reserves for himself (and the bureaucracy of the US government), allowing himself to be the figurative rich guy in a top hat who slips on a banana peel.

In the end, Brooks’ film posits, if we could just laugh at ourselves maybe the rest of the world could too. Is this film likely to even make a little dent in the problems in the Middle East? Probably not. However, it never hurts to remind people that they are not just villains, they are people with hopes and dreams and loves and wants, just like people in the US. (12/05)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2005 All rights reserved. Posted: December 23, 2005.

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