That Darn Jew

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World

A man in search of an audienceThe true subject of Albert Brooks’ Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is that fact that most people don’t find Albert Brooks funny.

That sounds sour, and it sells the movie short, but it’s fundamentally true. While The Aristocrats endlessly repeated a single dirty joke to expose the gears and springs of comedy, Brooks uses a single comedian — himself — to explore the often fragile bond between a performer and the audience. The issue: Why do some people laugh at a joke that leaves other people cold? Disguised as a narrative fiction, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is an essay on the nature of humor.

It’s a curious concoction, and a failure as entertainment, but sly and smart as well. What it lacks in actual laughs and comedic coherence it nearly makes up for with the elegant way it explores its topic.

Brooks has made a movie that any audience member — no matter his or her taste in comedy — will find at best uneven, because it runs the gamut from dumb but easily grasped jokes to the straight-faced deconstruction of comedy; the humor is spread across the spectrum from broad to nearly subliminal.

Yet that scattershot approach is purposeful, part of a sociological experiment that shows there is no communal experience with movies or comedy. Watch Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World in a theater and you’re likely to get as many reactions as there are people; it would almost seem that each person is watching a different movie.

The ostensible subject is Albert Brooks being sent to India and Pakistan by the U.S. government to write a 500-page report and — almost incidentally — to discover what makes Muslims laugh.

You see, the federal government, particularly its bureaucratic tendency to bury even good ideas under mountains of regulation, is inherently funny, like home videos of dads getting hit in the balls with baseball bats.

Of course, that’s not true. Some people will certainly laugh at humor at the expense of the federal government (or dads getting nailed in the balls); others won’t. Some people will laugh at a ventriloquism act in which the dummy drinks a glass of water while the performer sings; others won’t.

The mission allows Brooks an inevitable gag about call centers for American institutions being housed in India — a bit so clever that the writer/director offers it multiple times. It’s easy and obvious, but even a stupid joke can be effective if it connects directly to common experience.

People who find the call-center bit hilarious will likely be baffled by most of Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, though. While it works on a conceptual level — a kitchen-sink comedy to encourage viewers to think about what’s funny — the movie itself is too coy and elusive to achieve that aim. Brooks offers clues about what he’s up to (consider the title a framing device beyond serving as a description of the plot) but not enough of them.

The centerpiece of Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is a comedy concert in New Delhi. Brooks bombs before his Indian audience, to the degree that he asks how many of them speak English. They all raise their hands.

Unless they’re Brooks or meta-comedy aficionados, most viewers won’t recognize that his stage act in India is not Albert Brooks being an inept comedian, but Brooks playing an inept comedian and trying to mine laughs from that.

So people watching the movie will be confused when Brooks does the same routine for a small audience of Pakistani comedians and they find him riotous, even through a translator. That’s quite an accomplishment with his lead joke, a grade-school-quality play on words between “Gandhi” and the way Indians tend to pronounce “candy.”

Here the movie reaches a sublime level of ridiculousness, working off Brooks’ reputation as a “comedian’s comedian,” which is a euphemism meaning that his appeal is largely limited to comedians. The buried joke is that Brooks is so universally revered that even his language-specific gags are hilarious to comics who don’t speak English.

This requires context that Brooks assumes rather than presents. Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is easy to defend and explain, but it needs to be defended and explained, and that’s both a charm and its downfall.

That you won’t find the terribly funny isn’t a fault; it’s pretty much the point. But that doesn’t make it a good movie.

V for Vendetta

V for Vendetta is as blunt and coarse as Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is subtle.

I haven’t read the comic on which the movie is based, but it seems highly likely that the sins of V for Vendetta belong to the adaptation rather than the source material. Toothless and dumb, James McTeigue’s movie (written by the oh-so-1999 Wachowski brothers) appears to be no more than a shell of the work that Alan Moore wrote. And I don’t just mean that they trimmed a subplot or two or fused a couple of minor characters.

These are certainly times that call for art that forces us to figure out what distinguishes terrorism from freedom-fighting, and fascism from security. V for Vendetta obviously aspires to that, but on the screen it’s a dull revenge/anarchist fantasy that undermines its central conceit at every turn. If, as the “hero” V asserts repeatedly, his story is irrelevant compared to what he stands for, why is the entire plot consumed with developing his backstory?

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