Albert Brooks wrote, directed and stars in “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World.” Whether he found any still remains a mystery.
A self-indulgent, toothless and meandering satire, the film essentially consists of Brooks being himself on cue — that is, neurotically grousing — as he travels to India and Pakistan on a government mission.
The title suggests that the movie couldn’t be more relevant. And to be fair, it is a clever premise. “What makes you laugh?” Brooks asks strangers over and over as Maya (Sheetal Sheth), his enthusiastic yet comically challenged assistant/translator, takes notes by his side.
But he never comes up with an answer, and it almost seems as if that was never his intention anyway, even though he’s saddled with crafting a 500-page report of his findings.
“Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World” allows Brooks to trot out some of his old stand-up routines, including his deconstruction of the traditional ventriloquist act. (It’s easy to forget that, long before movies like “Lost in America” and “Broadcast News,” Brooks got his start nearly 40 years ago performing on Steve Allen’s and Ed Sullivan’s shows and the “Tonight” show, among other variety programs.)
Here and there, he does hit the mark with some of his absurdist observations. He can even laugh at himself at the film’s start by having Penny Marshall trash him for co-starring in the needless, over-the-top remake of “The In-Laws.”
When he bombs on stage in front of an English-speaking audience in New Delhi, though, he gleans no insight. Conversely, when he causes a handful of Pakistanis to fall over laughing at the same material, all he can do is blindly exalt,” “I killed!” Never mind that they’d been smoking a hookah around a campfire all night.
Brooks has said he was inspired to make this movie after seeing how the world had changed post-Sept. 11 and wondering what role humor still played in it. The few political or religious elements he adds to the film feel cursory and tossed-in, though.
In one instance, he meets with representatives of the Al-Jazeera Arab television network for what he believes will be an interview about his research project. Instead, they want him to star in a sitcom they’re developing, which translates into English as “That Darn Jew.” It’s a bit of sketch humor — it comes and goes without really registering.
Later, and more glaringly, is the abrupt suggestion that Brooks’ presence has inspired troop build-up in preparation for possible battle along the Indian-Pakistani border. This isn’t just a half-baked idea that Brooks abandons as quickly as he introduces it; even worse in a comedy, it just plain isn’t funny.