Albert Brooks, the once-funny comic-turned-filmmaker, plays a once-funny comic-turned-filmmaker named Albert Brooks in Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, which he also wrote and directed. It's the second time Brooks has played himself, more or less; the first was in 1979, when he made Real Life, in which he played a filmmaker whose quest to film a normal family actually destroys one. That movie was Brooks' first and remains his funniest, not only as a spot-on parody of PBS' 1973 An American Family (an antiquated reference now), but also as a prophetic hint of what would become our unforgivable obsession with the phoniness of reality TV. Real Life endures because it offered uncomfortably profound truths obscured behind the guise of studio-slapstick unreality. And it was the precursor to the brand of irritainment offered up by The Larry Sanders Show, Curb Your Enthusiasm and the original BBC series The Office.
Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, Brooks' seventh film and first in six years, desperately wants to remind us of that Albert Brooks the one who made us squirm and giggle, the one who risked humiliation in the name of humor. The movie opens with Brooks meeting director Penny Marshall for her remake of Harvey, itself a sick joke. Marshall, who acts and looks here like a drag queen doing a Laverne routine, can't be bothered to even take the meeting; she dismisses him after recalling he was in that wretched In-Laws remake. (Apparently, being a mere voice in Finding Nemo isn't enough to warrant the suggestion of redemption, even from the woman who made Renaissance Man.) Brooks is just a pitiable reject: He's out of work and desperately in need of money, if only to finance his wife's obsession with buying antique crap on eBay.
The premise has promise: What does a former genius do when he's running out of options (and, perhaps, talent)? But Brooks squanders it, as he has everything he's done in recent years, and Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World finds not a single laugh over there (India and Pakistan, that is) or, alas, over here. You can look all you want, but you, like Brooks, will come up empty-handed.
Without any acting gigs, Brooks winds up accepting a job from the U.S. government that demands he travel to India (and not a Middle Eastern country, itself a disappointing turn of events) to find out what makes Muslims laugh. He's to write a 500-page report, a fact we're reminded of a thousand times as he struggles to find the answer which is, simply, Brooks doesn't make anyone laugh, regardless of religion or nationality. (According to Law & Order's Fred Thompson, also playing himself, Brooks was far down on the list of choices for the assignment; the funny people, apparently, were working.) So he spends the entire movie interviewing people (actors, not real people) on the street and prepping for a stand-up concert that's so wholly amateurish and unfunny that a Brooks first-timer will be tempted to wonder if he's not in fact a dull and humorless man who's never told a joke in his life, much less been good at it way back when.
There are some who believe Brooks peaked with 1985's Lost in America, which was the final installment in his loosely defined Americana trilogy that began with Real Life and 1981's Modern Romance, about the fine line between true love and creepy obsession. Others are more generous, adding 1991's Defending Your Life to the short list; it's more sweet than funny, which goes a long way. But there's no defending his latter movies, especially 1999's The Muse; the irony of Brooks making a dreadful movie about losing his gift was lost on no one, save the filmmaker himself. It was like watching the Marx Brothers stumble through A Night in Casablanca, or Jerry Lewis offer a sad parody of himself in Cracking Up. Something about a sad clown comes to mind.
But Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is a particularly painful event for those of us weaned on Brooks' earliest films, Saturday Night Live shorts and vintage clips of his deadpan stand-up appearances. It contains precisely two funny moments, one of which involves his being asked by Al-Jazeera execs to star in a proposed series called That Darn Jew, which is the closest the movie ever comes to offering anything remotely germane to the movie's title.
The second gag repeats itself so often that it loses its appeal: Brooks takes an office in a building that houses a shabby telemarketing complex, in which Indians answer calls for American businesses. Yes, it's an absolutely obvious joke, but the first time you hear the medley of greetings for State Farm Insurance or American Airlines, you crack the knowing smile that broadens into a genuine giggle. But Brooks knows the joke works, and he comes back to it again and again, running it into the ground and planting it six feet under. Allegedly, Warner Independent wound up distributing this movie because Sony was frightened of the title's political connotations. Don't believe it: The studio was cutting its losses, and you'd be advised to do the same.