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Looking For comedy not funny enough
Arthur J Pais |
January 19, 2006 19:41 IST
Albert Brooks has surely found a beguiling title for his newest film, but Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, the sixth the actor and writer has directed, is no laugh riot. It still has a number of awesome jokes though, like Brooks, who plays himself in the film, walking past Taj Mahal and missing it completely. Or him turning up at the New Delhi offices of Al Jazeera thinking the radical Arab network is interested in his research about Muslims, only to find out it wants to cast him in a TV show called That Darn Jew.
The modestly budgeted film ($10 million), shot almost entirely in India, is never boring. But don't go expecting jokes about Muslims. In fact, Brooks who is sent to India by the State Department to find out what makes Muslims in India and Pakistan laugh, spends much of his time in New Delhi interviewing anyone but Muslims. Given the film's premise that Americans seriously stumble while trying to understand another culture, such seeming lapses do not at all appear to be liabilities.
Comedy in the Muslim world?
The film begins with a humiliating meeting that Brooks, desperately looking for an acting assignment, has with director Penny Marshall (as herself). He returns home dejected, to find his wife caught up with her addiction to eBay. He also has a letter summoning him to the State Department and assumes someone in the government has discovered that he has visited the Al Qaeda Web site. He is anxious to clear the misunderstanding, but discovers that Washington wants him to do something unbelievable: He is to go to India and Pakistan, find out what makes Muslims laugh, and write a 500-page report!
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Though he is initially hesitant, he gives in when told he will get a congressional medal. He has also to think about his big house, his wife and daughter. But his mood begins to sour in no time when he is squeezed into economy class on an airplane to India with his State Dept. handlers, Stuart (John Carroll Lynch) and Mark (Jon Tenney). In New Delhi, there is no limo waiting for the three men. And the American ambassador isn't around either. The tiny office rented next to a call centre makes the situation worse.
'America needs to kick itself in the butt'
The audiences have a fine time, especially because of the announcements at the call centre. Albert, not surprisingly, is oblivious to the comedy and absurdity around him. His efforts to find an assistant are frustrating, but not to viewers who can have a few hearty laughs when a young Muslim woman wants to know how much of a Jew he is. It seems as if things are improving when he finds a bright, enthusiastic Maya (Sheetal Sheth in a career-making role) who hits the streets with him to ask people what makes them laugh. The situation remains grim though.
They get responses that may not even fill a few pages. So, Albert puts up his own stand-up comedy routine but jokes such as there is no Halloween in India because they (Indians) have taken the Gandhi out of it don't tickle audiences. The act goes on for more than 10 minutes. While it makes a point or two -- about one man's humour being someone else's yawn -- it is also one of the film's weaker sections. It is simply not amusing enough for audiences in New York or Montreal.
'They told me to get boobs'
With his despair mounting and his handlers unable to get him a visa to meet with Muslims in Pakistan, Albert is smuggled across the border, ostensibly to meet with Pakistani comedians. The men are protected by armed guards and are smoking pot. But they insist he tell them a few jokes. He does, repeating some of the jokes that found no appreciation in India. The men laugh loudly, but he is not sure if they get the humour or if they are laughing at the absurdity of the situation.
The film takes a slightly dramatic (and still comic) turn when the illegal border crossing raises suspicion about Albert's real mission, and the two countries come close to a nuclear war. Not surprisingly, Albert Brooks is ordered to abort the mission and return to Washington with his handlers.
The idea of a war being triggered unwittingly because of the missteps of an inept comedian is arresting, but the way it is written and executed doesn't provide enough black comedy. The film would also have gained considerably if the two agents had something really funny to do. Among the performers, Brooks is generally pleasant, though he has given far better performances in such films as Broadcast News and the animated classic, Finding Nemo.
Sheth is sparkling, especially in the scenes in which she seeks Albert's help to deal with her jealous boyfriend. Brooks, the anti-hero, returns to the US without really finding out what makes Muslims or anyone laugh. Now Brooks, the filmmaker, will soon know whether his film can make Muslims, Hindus, Jews and others across the globe chuckle, if not laugh uncontrollably.
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