What is funny -- and why? A fat man and a thin one trying to move a piano? A bug-eyed freak and his teddy bear? Pratfalls, poop jokes, practical jokes, spun-out stories of laughed-through pain, drag-queen song and dance? What does what we find amusing say about who we are -- as individuals, societies, and even nations?
The title of the comedian Albert Brooks' film Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World seems to promise such probings both philosophical and funny. But like so many other American quest-films or movies about Americans abroad -- Roger & Me, Lost In Translation -- Brooks seems to find little but his own irritating self.
Brooks is no dummy -- he's attempting to satirize American myopia, Ugly Americanism as foreign policy. His attempts at self-mockery are too whiny, broad, and knowing by half, unfortunately, to provoke new insights into what has become guilt-appeasing stereotype. Brooks begins by portraying an even more fussypants version of himself, a comedian also named Albert Brooks, who, in the opening scenes, is seen trying to soft-shoe into a job with the delightfully iron-clad Penny Marshall. He frets at home, waiting for a call back, when he receives an unexpected letter summoning him to Washington, DC. Members of a State Department committee assembled by the president explain the situation to Brooks -- they'd like the comedian to travel to India and Pakistan, find out what makes people laugh there, and file a 300-page report. His reward? The Medal of Freedom.
Brooks, out of work, over the hill, saddled with the same old shtick, snaps at the opportunity. He jets to New Delhi, where he's disgruntled to find a tiny office, two baboonish handlers, no welcome committee, no fruit basket, nothing. The gloom is alleviated only by a lovely assistant whose unrelenting sincerity leaves her humor-impaired. Brooks attempts to teach her a few yuks -- “I'm a regular Henry Higgins of comedy,” he mutters. All else is a disaster. His few attempts at interviews are ineffective, there are cows in the streets, and Indians only know him as the frantic daddy fish of Finding Nemo. So he decides to both educate the Indians about who he is and find out what makes them laugh by staging a comedy show -- starring himself.
This sequence presents the only scenes in the film that allow the awkwardness, pain, and unexpectedness that are key ingredients of memorable comedy to come to the fore. Brooks does a ventriloquist bit, a replay of his early-career comedy that is beautifully absurd -- and even funnier for its deathly reception among the unsmilingly expectant crowd. Brooks pants through other routines -- they're brilliant, really, these dissections, skewerings of comedy, an improv routine composed of suggestions by the audience that Brooks mercilessly edits so it reads the way he wants, for example. Of course the audience doesn't get it -- they don't know what Brooks is referring to, and Brooks flails about trying to find common ground.
After the multi-layered, sly, sweaty terror of the comedy-show scene, the rest of the film is a disappointing bit of patter. Brooks waltzes past the Taj Mahal without even seeing it, he may have started an international incident between India and Pakistan -- it's just too obvious, the satire too easy.
There's a way to critique myopia without being myopic, of course. By allowing the characters to which the unreliable narrator -- the subject of satire -- seems blind, to emerge, tantalizingly, out of the gloom. The way that Lolita, ferally smart, gifted with keen-eyed insight and imagination, a knowing yet vulnerable child, can be glimpsed behind Humber Humbert's preening, gargantuan ego, his orotund justifications and bombast. Or the way individual Iraqis -- like that tough-minded businessman, say -- surfaced out of the crowd of desperate refugees in Three Kings.
Brooks doesn't allow those figures to peer past his frantic futzing, his easily lampooned self-absorption. We can't glimpse anything unexpected, unguessed-at that flies in the face of his character's assessment of the situation -- his film lacks the necessary ironic distance that would jar with its strangeness, its odd vectors.
Brooks is clearly capable of getting into the forensics and philosophy of humor -- his comedy routine demonstrates that with aplomb. But for the rest of the film, he's too busy fussing, primping, kvetching, brow-furrowing -- a whirling nebbish, Brooks is too nerved out on neuroses to let viewers work it out on their own, or to let supporting characters subvert his character's two-dimensional assessments. The promise of the title, and of the potential of a sharp, delving into the essentials and cross-cultural elements of humor are squandered -- there is very little that is funny in Looking for Comedy.
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.