I just saw a really good film: “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World.” Written by, directed by, and starring Albert Brooks as himself, this American-centric comedy imagines that the State Department wants to send a comedian overseas to discover what makes Muslims laugh. After all, it’s clear, they admit, they don’t understand the rest of the world. Perhaps if the US government could understand the role of humor in other cultures, it might lead to better understanding between nations. So the State Department sends Brooks to India to research and write-up a 500 page report on what makes Muslims laugh. They can’t pay Brooks anything, but promise he will get a medal. Not a very probable premise, but without it there would be no film.
Accompanied by two State Department representatives (John Carroll Lynch and Jon Tenney) and assisted by a secretary (Sheetal Seth) Brooks hits India like the liberal ugly American who is desperately trying to keep from being ugly. With his ignorance of Indian culture and self-interest, most of the jokes are at Brooks’ own expense. And I have to say they are very funny.
On-the-street interviews don’t prove terribly successful. So in a better attempt to see what makes Indians laugh, Brooks puts on a show with all his old stand-up bits. Most of them are so stupid you have to laugh at how ridiculous they are and how idiotic Brooks is because he thinks they are funny. For example, one joke he tells is, “Why don’t they have Halloween in India? Because they took away all the Gandhi.” And he does the most absolute worst ventriloquist act you’ve ever seen.
Perhaps the biggest irony in the film is that although Brooks’ mission is to ultimately build bridges toward peace, his actions, including sneaking across the border into Pakistan to meet with Pakistani comedians, actually end up causing an international incident that heats up tensions between India and Pakistan and war threatens to break out.
Some have criticized this movie for not really delving deep into Indian culture, but those criticisms miss the point that Brooks, as the typical American, just isn’t really interested in learning about Indians or Muslims. His key interest is writing his 500-page report and getting his medal. In a key scene, he is so self-absorbed in a discussion about his own view of comedy that he completely misses the Taj Mahal. Although the joke is at Brooks’ own expense, it’s a rather poignant moment. This is when you finally realize that this is not a film about Muslims but rather about the American view of the world.
Overall, I thought it was a very funny film and I laughed through the whole thing.
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