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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Blind Picks from Netflix: Looking for Comedy in The Muslim World (2006)

“You just assume there are comedy clubs everywhere.”

That’s what Albert Brooks says when he arrives in India in his latest film, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World. It pretty much sums up the theme of the entire movie: The Americans tend to be painfully ethnocentric, even when they are trying hard to understand other cultures. Of course, Americans aren’t alone in this respect, but it is the U.S. nation’s misunderstanding of Islam and of Pakistan and India that is the particular subject of Satire in Brooks’ latest film.

The folks at Warner Independent made the mistake of marketing Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World as a comedy. Although it has a few moments of hilarity, it is really more of a quasi-fictional sociology experiment. The US State Department hires Albert Brooks (played by Albert Brooks) to go to Pakistan and India and figure out what the Muslims find funny. The plot is reminiscent of some of the wacky tactics employed by the U.S. in the 50s and 60s, such as spiking foreign leaders' beverages with acid or attempting to defeat Cuba by making Castro's beard fall out. Brooks is aided in his survey by an enthusiastic local woman, Maya (Sheetal Sheth), who types 135 words a minute and has both a journalism degree and a jealous Iranian boyfriend. Sheth is really one of the highlights of this film and I predict that she will go far. Brooks puts on a comedy show in New Delhi, and he fails miserably, not because the audience doesn’t have a sense of humor, but because his jokes are badly delivered. People who are familiar with Brooks’ standup comedy and film career will recognize some of his routines, such as his ventriloquist act and his fake improvisation bit. Normally, these acts are good, but Brooks butchers them here; the comedy in this film is not in the form of deliberate jokes but in the overall concept. America wants to find out what the Muslims think is funny? And they send Albert Brooks? Throw a cream pie and chimpanzee into that equation and you’ve got my money. There is some real throwaway gold here, such as a running gag in which Brooks walks through an office building, hearing Indian operators helping customers of US corporations as he walks by. Another hilarious scene involves Brooks getting a sitcom pitch from Al-Jazeera.

The funny part is that the material Brooks is using in the film isn’t even funny in his own country, yet he somehow expects it to kill overseas. I’m not going to repeat his Gandhi joke here because it is too embarrassing, but suffice to say is both offensive and sophomoric. Even funnier is the idea that “the Muslim world,” would all agree on what’s funny. Even if he did come to understand the cultures of the people involved (which, when you’re talking about “the Muslim world,” includes many different cultures), he would still have address individual tastes. Could you honestly put into words what makes you laugh? I don’t think I could, and neither can the people Brooks interviews in India.

There is a brilliant little clip of Brooks watching Indian television in his hotel room. It reminded me of an experience I had watching Greek television while I was staying Athens. It was a sketch comedy show, involving a hirsute, bejeweled man stuffing dolmas into his mouth while watching a naked woman dance behind a screen to the song “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” I was simultaneously amused and perplexed, and I suspect that the look on my face at that moment was the same as the look on Brooks’ face as he watches the Indian couple on television chasing each other around with pillows. It pretty much sums up the film: no one can just fly to another country and figure out what is funny in that specific culture. In order to understand humor, you have to immerse yourself and truly understand the culture, the people, and the history of the place. When he gets to India and Pakistan, Brooks tries to fit everything into his already narrow framework of what comedy is, which is why he fails. Looking for Comedy isn’t really a comedy—it is a critique of ethnocentrism and American solipsism. The film ends on a perfect note. It doesn't look to solve all of our problems or tie up all the loose ends; rather, it points out the futility of backwards government missions. Of course Brooks doesn't succeed--he was doomed from the start because his task was impossible.

Early in the film, Albert Brooks walks up to a stranger in the streets of New Delhi and telling him a Polish joke. The man laughs. Brooks concludes that, “Polish jokes work in any country.” The moral? The safest (if cheapest) way to make people laugh is to make fun of someone else’s culture.


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