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Overall Rating
3.51

Awesome: 13.95%
Worth A Look44.19%
Average: 20.93%
Pretty Bad: 20.93%
Total Crap: 0%

6 reviews, 7 user ratings


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Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Real Life (and maybe death) the Albert Brooks Way"
5 stars

There are relatively few absolutes in the world of film but I believe that it can be said without much hesitation that Albert Brooks is the single best comedic filmmaker at work today. Admittedly, there isn’t really much competition for this particular title at this point and time. Mel Brooks and Jerry Lewis have essentially retired from the game, Woody Allen has grown too wildly inconsistent in the last decade or so, the Coen Brothers hop genres so frequently that you can’t really call them comedic filmmakers and former contenders like John Landis and the Farrelly Brothers never quite lived up to the promise of their earlier films. Of the newer wave of filmmakers, Spike Jonze has yet to prove that he can make a feature film without the backup of a Charlie Kaufman screenplay and Judd Apatow, despite the success of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” needs to do a few more films in order to prove that the remarkable talents shown in his television work can translate to film. Perhaps the closest person to a true competitor is Wes Anderson and “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” while entertaining, showed that his relentlessly quirky style was in danger of growing a bit stale.

Unless I am shamefully overlooking someone, that leaves Brooks and while he has only made a handful of features since his 1978 debut “Real Life,” they have been of such a consistently high quality that I would stack his filmography up against that of any director–comedic or otherwise–working today. His films are hilarious, of course, but what makes them so significant is that Brooks actually dares to create films that are about something other than poking viewers in the ribs for 90 minutes. In his work, he has tackled such seemingly serious subjects as economic and work-related distress (“Lost in America” and “The Muse), emotional hangups (“Modern Romance” and “Defending Your Life”), familial relationships (“Mother”) and media intrusion into contemporary life (“Real Life”) and dealt with them in a manner that shows that he actually has given them serious thought while still delivering enormous laughs. Of course, this kind of intelligent filmmaking comes at a price and Brooks’s refusal to just give viewers a bunch of silly laughs–and he could do such a thing in a heartbeat if he wanted–has limited both his ability to get his work produced at a time when smart filmmaking is at a premium and his ability to get the mass audience to come out to see them when he does manage to get one through the system.

“Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World,” his latest film (his first since 1999's “The Muse”) is no exception and just from the title alone, it is obvious that Brooks has not toned down his singular approach one bit–if anything, it shows a filmmaker more committed than ever to grappling with the problems of the real world by trying to deal with them in a humorous manner. However, the serious underlying subject matter–America’s position in the post-9/11 world and its increasingly tenuous relations with large parts of that world in the wake of our increasingly aggressive behavior–hasn’t muted his ability to transform it into funny material. The result is a daring high-wire act of a film that is not only Brooks’s best and most consistent work since “Lost in America” but is also arguably one of the most artistically significant explorations of 9/11 and its aftermath to hit movie screens to date.

As he did in “Real Life,” Brooks plays himself and as the film opens, he is struggling to find a job in an industry where, unless you are someone on the level of Tom Hanks, you are only as successful as your last film–not so great when your last two film roles were as the voice of a talking fish and the star of the ill-fated remake of “The In-Laws.” After the humiliation of attending a meeting for a possible remake of”Harvey”–a project that he doesn’t particularly want to do and the producers really don’t want him to do (the nicest thing they can say to him is a patently insincere “I loved ‘The In-Laws’”)–Brooks comes home and discovers a letter summoning him to Washington. When he arrives, he finds himself invited to participate in a program devised by the president and spearheaded by politician-turned-actor Fred Dalton Thompson (playing himself) in order to get to know our enemies overseas through that most basic tool–laughter. Since he is an acclaimed comedian (at least the most acclaimed not at work on another project), he is asked to go over to India and Pakistan to find out what it is that makes Muslims laugh and write up a 500-page study on what he learns about the subject. (“You can use charts.”) A noble idea in theory, but the very fact that Brooks is being sent to a country that has more Hindus than Muslims is an early indication that it is pretty much doomed from the start.

With the promise of a Medal of Freedom ringing in his ears, Brooks flies off to India (coach, naturally) with a pair of government agents (John Carroll Lynch and Jon Tenney) who are supposed to provide him with what he needs but who seem more interested in telling him that the ending of “Lost in America” seemed “tacked on.” Once he settles in and hires local woman Maya (Sheetal Sheth) as his assistant–she is smart and resourceful, though a bit unclear on the concept of sarcasm–it finally dawns on him that he has no real idea of what is he supposed to do or how is supposed to go about it. After attempts to interview people on the street cough up little more than the revelation that Polish jokes are pretty much universal, Brooks hits upon his brilliant idea–he will recruit an audience of locals and perform a stand-up comedy routine in which he will demonstrate various forms of humor and he can base his report on how they respond.

The extended sequence in which he performs his act is both the central section of the film and the comedic high-point. Like so many before him, Brooks has lulled himself into a false sense of superiority and believes so much in his genius at comedy that he doesn’t even make a token effort to study or understand the locals in order to tailor his material. Instead, he comes out and starts things off with a silly joke involving Halloween and Gandhi–forgetting, of course, that Halloween is a largely American custom that doesn’t exist in India–to a deafening roar of indifference. As his act goes on and on without any laughs, he becomes increasingly desperate and when he finally hits upon something that could work–a demonstration of improv in which he takes suggestions from the audience–he chooses to alienate them even further by throwing out their contributions entirely on the basis that they simply aren’t funny enough.

The scene is brilliant on any number of levels. For starters, it serves as a perfect metaphor for America and its tendency to blunder into foreign lands (be it Iraq or Vietnam or Nicaragua) with the promise of liberating people without ever demonstrating an interest in what makes them tick–in both cases, bombing is usually the end result. Longtime fans of Brooks will love the scene for the way that it harkens back to the conceptual stand-up material (in which he would deconstruct familiar comedic concepts by showing them going badly–he once played a mime who had to explain everything that he was doing: “Now I am walking up zee stairs!”) that helped reinvent the medium in the early 1970's. Best of all, it reminds us that there are few funnier things in the world than watching the face of Albert Brooks as everything begins to collapse around him through the fault of pretty much nobody else but his own.

After that disaster, Brooks is ready to pack it all up but when he discovers that he has generated only a few pages of material, he presses on with his research. When his government assistants neglect to get him the proper paperwork to get into Pakistan, they instead smuggle him over the border in the dead of night to meet with a group of local comedians who respond well to his material–perhaps because he uses a translator who may be doing a better job of tailoring the jokes and perhaps because his audience is stoned to the gills. There is also a request to visit the al-Jazeera network that does not go exactly as planned. What Brooks doesn’t realize, however, is that since no one has bothered to inform the local governments of what he is doing there, his movements and actions are raising the suspicions of the governments of India and Pakistan–already suspicious of each other, Brooks’s stumbling efforts to be considered “the Henry Kissinger of Comedy” threatens to have deadly consequences of which he remains utterly oblivious.

“Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World” is a typical effort from Albert Brooks–he approaches the material in a highly intelligent and dryly ironic manner that doesn’t explain the various levels that the jokes are working on and assumes that those watching are smart enough to figure things out for himself. In the past, this approach has won him a lot of fans among the intelligentsia but earned him the scorn of many others who simply haven’t gotten the joke–it is said that when he made “Real Life,” in which he supposedly trained cameras on a typical American family in a spoof of a then-famous PBS documentary, the studio supposedly received letters from people wondering why such a potentially important social experiment was given to someone so throughly unqualified to the task. Today, I look at some of the reader reviews of this film on IMDB and I see that some things haven’t changed–people are complaining about him for setting his film in India instead of a more overtly Muslim country and for his stand-up act being filled with specific cultural references that would certainly go over the heads of most Indian audiences. Let me be perfectly clear–if you still don’t understand why Brooks made those specific choices, just skip this film entirely and buy a ticket for “Underworld: Evolution” instead. (Furthermore, if you don’t get the jokes, you probably shouldn’t pony up the money to make the movie, something that Sony found out when they (presumably) read the script, financed the film and then refused to distribute it on the grounds that Muslims might somehow find it offensive. Warner Independent eventually picked it up and is releasing it on the same day that Sony is putting out, you guessed it, “Underworld: Evolution”–a film that cost untold millions more and will, if the refusal to screen it for critics is any indication, doubtlessly quickly disappear from view.)

Perhaps adding to the confusion amongst some viewers is one of the things that I have always found most valuable about Brooks’s films to date–they are comedies that don’t look like comedies. Film comedy today is, for the most part, an aesthetically crude medium that likes to employ wacky camera moves and crude close-ups in a desperate effort to remind viewers that the film is supposed to be ‘funny’. Brooks, on the other hand, utilizes a visual approach that takes everything seriously and lets the humor emerge from the material–if you were to watch one of his films without the sound, you could easily mistake it for a serious drama. This is not to say that Brooks can’t tell a visual joke when he wants to–there is a hilarious bit involving a visit to the Taj Mahal that is almost entirely visual in nature–but in general, he prefers to keep such goofiness to a minimum. Admirers of visual aesthetics may applaud this approach but those who need to be cued on when to laugh may find it a bit alienating.

Because he is portraying a character named “Albert Brooks,” many people will assume that Brooks is simply playing himself and walk away from the film thinking that he is a whiny, egomaniacal and self-absorbed jerk who is less concerned about his mission than he is about being forced to fly coach and having to write a 500-page report. Again, this is what some refer to as a joke–Brooks is merely playing a caricature of himself in a tradition that stretches from the days of Jack Benny and Gracie Allen to the contemporary likes of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David (whose persona on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” owes a lot to Brooks). It is a very funny performance, one made even more hilarious by his cheerful willingness to largely make himself the butt of most of the jokes without giving himself a scene that reminds us that it is all in fun and that he is really a decent guy after all. There is also a nice turn from relative newcomer Sheetal Sheth as Brooks’s level-headed assistant, one all the better because the relationship between the two characters does not develop in the manner that many may expect.

“Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World” is a hilarious film–the funniest American film in recent memory–and the only thing that I don’t quite understand is why Warners is putting it out in the middle of January, traditionally a dumping ground for films that have already been written off as dogs. I suspect that if it had been released even a couple of months earlier, it could well have found a place for itself at this year’s Oscar table, especially since so many of the assumed front-runners have fallen by the wayside. Don’t let the release date scare you away, however–just pretend that it is really October and prepare yourself for a film that may actually make you think while you are rolling in the aisles.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=13770&reviewer=389
originally posted: 01/20/06 15:48:21
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User Comments

5/03/07 David Pollastrini Boooooring! 2 stars
9/09/06 Phil M. Aficionado It just plain doesn't do anything except have an intriguing title; flat, shallow, boring 2 stars
3/28/06 Joe Schiappa okay 3 stars
3/28/06 Danny Johanson Good, but it can get really boring really fast 3 stars
1/25/06 Styopa Tendentious, predictable, patronizing (of the audience). Really straining to be amusing. 2 stars
1/24/06 Ole Man Bourbon A total failure, but a fun one. I guess quality talent goes a long way. AB fans only. 3 stars
1/21/06 Jim The Movie Freak Brooks can do no wrong although there is a slow patch here and there 4 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  20-Jan-2006 (PG-13)
  DVD: 29-Aug-2006

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