Looking For Comedy in the Muslim World
Writer, director, and actor Albert Brooks says he wrestled for years with the idea of exploring the ways the world has changed since September 11, 2001, calling it the "700-pound gorilla sitting in my comedy office saying, 'Deal with this, find a way.'" Apparently, that big ape eventually evolved into a Big Idea, because the concept for Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is a great one. While the film doesn't always live up to the potential of its premise, it gets high marks (and some good laughs) for even trying.
The movie opens with Brooks (playing an obtuse version of himself) in an awkward casting meeting with Penny Marshall (playing an abrasive edition of herself). Brooks confides he's "looking for that next great acting role," and Marshall makes it clear that he's NOT what she's looking for. The scene, complete with jabs at the actor's previous work and the suggestion that perhaps he is washed-up, is quintessential Brooks, and it sets the tone of self-deprecation that will elicit laughter from some, and groans from others, throughout the movie.
Dejected, Brooks heads home and discovers a registered letter from the U.S. government. Afraid he's been busted for visiting an Al Qaeda website ("just once, out of curiosity, for 15 minutes"), Brooks is pleasantly surprised to discover he's being courted by the State Department. Enthusiastically encouraged by his wife, the work-hungry comedian travels to Washington, D.C. to meet with a special commission chaired by actor and former senator Fred Dalton Thompson (played, rather convincingly, by actor and former senator Fred Dalton Thompson). Thompson tells Brooks that the government recognizes its need to move beyond just the "usual stuff"—spying and fighting—in its efforts to understand other (potentially threatening) cultures. Uncle Sam wants Brooks to travel to India and Pakistan, find out what makes Muslim people laugh, and write a 500-page report detailing his findings. (When Brooks points out that India is predominantly Hindu, the commission assures him that there are still 150 million Muslims there—certainly enough to facilitate his research.) The length of the required report intimidates Brooks, but the promise of a Medal of Freedom ("the nice one … with the ribbon collar") is too much to resist, and he agrees to the trip.
Two half-hearted State Department bureaucrats, Stuart and Mark, are assigned to accompany Brooks, and soon the three men are jammed into the coach section of a twenty-hour Air India flight. Stuart (a very funny John Carroll Lynch, best-known from Fargo and The Drew Carey Show) is a fan of Albert's work, whereas Mark (an appropriately inscrutable John Tenney) knows little about the comedian and cares even less. (When, pressed, Mark acknowledges he has seen Brooks' classic Lost in America. "Did you like it?" asks the filmmaker. "Parts of it," answers Mark. "I thought the ending felt a bit tacked on.") Both men blame the lack of first class seating on a "mix-up," but it doesn't take long for a disgruntled Brooks to realize nothing about the trip is going to be up to his standards. When at last he is settled into his New Delhi hotel, his phone call home reveals the benign narcissism that has accompanied him all the way across the world. He's too busy kvetching to his wife about the flight and the absence of an embassy driver upon their arrival to report anything significant about his first visit to an exotic new place.