Thursday, January 19, 2006

looking for comedy in the muslim world

i saw a sneak preview of "looking for comedy in the muslim world" last night. it was really disappointing. it's not out yet, but you're not missing anything if you skip it when it does reach a theater near you.

the basic storyline is out-of-work comedian albert brooks (played by albert brooks) is recruited by the state department as a sort of comedic ambassador to the muslim world. he is assigned to figure out and write a report about what makes muslims laugh.

brooks is sent to india to conduct his research, an odd choice considering his assignment is supposed to be about muslims. the film tries to address this logical flaw in one scene near the beginning. when brooks is first told where he is being sent he asks "aren't they hindus?" one of the state department representative replies "there are 150 million muslims there, isn't that enough for you?" and another adds "if you can figure out why the hindus laugh that will be good enough too." but in reality, that's not the real reason for the film's setting. the washington post quotes the film producer herb nanas who admitted that the real reason for that dramatic choice was a little different:
A Jewish filmmaker -- Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia? Not gonna happen.
as a jewish guy who has traveled alone to several places in the muslim world, this strikes me as rather ridiculous. the wapo article further notes that brooks was scared to attend the premier at the dubai film festival. "I think they admired me for getting over that fear and coming." brooks is quoted as saying. it's probably more likely that brooks would have gotten the same red-carpet treatment whether he was scared or not.

anyway, this back story goes to the heart of my biggest problem with the film. it reflected american stereotypes about different cultures more than it reflected how those other cultures actually are. muslims are portrayed as being obsessed with jews. in one scene brooks interviews a woman to be his secretary. she's covered and is obviously supposed to be a muslim. he only question during the interview is "are you a jew?" later, he visits the al-jazeera office in new delhi where they offer him a job to star in a new sitcom called "that darn jew." the film portrays muslims as many american jews (indeed, many americans) imagine them to be, not as they actually are in my experience.

it's not just the jew thing either. at one point brooks sneaks over the border into pakistan to meet a bunch of aspiring pakistani comedians. the comedians, however, are living in some remote camp. they all have beards and look like mujahideen. they even had a guy standing guard with an AK-47. i saw the film with a friend who is of pakistani descent and she was a little offended by the scene. it bore no resemblance to the pakistan she visited when she was young. likewise, indians are portrayed as utterly humorless. in new delhi, brooks has to explain what sarcasm is to the ignorant natives.

that is not to say that there can't be a good movie poking fun at american stereotypes of other cultures. but the problem is that "looking for comedy" ultimately adopts those stereotypes and presents them as reality. albert brooks doesn't just spend the movie worrying that muslims will be obsessed with jews, the muslims really are obsessed with jews. the pakistanis aren't just thought of as just a bunch of mujahideen, they really are a bunch of mujahideen, even the comedians live in well-guarded camps.

but probably the film's worst flaw is that it just isn't that funny. at one point, brooks decides to see what makes indians laugh by doing a stand-up performance. the idea is to do a wide range of materials and to see what type of humor provokes a reaction from the audience. the performance produces not a single laugh, which supposedly shows just how humorless the indians are. but the film viewer also gets to see the performance, and it just isn't all that funny. you can't really blame the indians for sitting there silently. they were a lot like the audience in my movie theater. (oddly, the pakistanis laugh hysterically when he repeats the performance in their camp--who knows what that's supposed to mean).

with a couple of rare exceptions, the jokes throughout the film fall flat. maybe the film should have been called "looking for comedy in an albert brooks film." unfortunately for the audience, the search ultimately proves to be fruitless.