'Looking for Comedy': The Sound of One Fan Laughing

Albert Brooks as
Albert Brooks as "Albert Brooks," center, with Sheetal Sheth as Maya and Duncan Bravo as a stage manager, goes trolling for laughs in foreign lands but mostly falls flat. (By Lacey Terrell -- Shangri-la Entertainment)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 20, 2006

I sometimes think Albert Brooks would do better if he'd aim for a bigger audience: This movie seems to be aimed at an audience of one. Me.

Maybe some others out there feel they get it, too, but it's such a slithery, incandescent thing he's selling, so fragile and gossamer, here one second and gone forever, beyond recall, the next. To describe it is almost to destroy it.

The movies -- and this is true to a fault of the new "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World" -- don't locate humor in traditional sources. The jokes in "Looking for Comedy" are particularly deficient; the structure (setup, sustenance, complication, delivery) isn't impressive. It's not very clever, it's not very charming, there are no boffo sight gags, nobody falls down goes boom. It self-terminates. In fact, the movie doesn't so much end as reach a stopping point and limp hurriedly off-screen, like a bad standup chased out by boo birds.

But God, is it funny.

Admittedly: an acquired taste. How many ways can I say that? What he is selling is something so tiny in its niche that it might not even have a name: It's not slapstick, satire, situation, repartee, quip, wit, gag or snapper. It's what can only be called the frailty of the comic ego. The funniest thing about Brooks is that he's not that funny. In fact, if he were funnier, he wouldn't be nearly as funny.

He's for people like himself: cerebral, but less cerebral, really, than they think. People who are both fascinated and saddened by the vanities of show business, even while fractured by self-doubt. Yet a certain part of them is hungry for stardom at the lowest, basest, most vulgar level, even though they know such towering need of ego gratification is somehow wrong. It's for people living under just the faintest pall of self-delusion, who like to think that, of course, they get it, even as they're secretly terrified they don't and somebody will find out. It's for people with a profound sense of moral center who would probably pick up a ten-spot if they found it on the street. They want to be nice; they tell themselves they are nice, they deserve better, it's wrong that they don't get more, but they can't make themselves quite try hard enough and can't make themselves stop secretly hating themselves.

Brooks sets himself up as almost this perfect schlemiel, playing a character named "Albert Brooks" who, despite his formidable comic reputation, isn't really doing that well, can't get much work, is eaten by doubts, may be over and isn't sure he deserves to do better and is really, anyway, too sensitive for the cutthroat realities of big-time showbiz.

In the movie's first scene, he goes for another in the eternal round of usually feckless movie biz meetings that lubricate the turning of cogs and gears in Los Angeles, picturing "Albert Brooks" as melancholy but hopeful of getting That Big Part, in for an interview with the powerful director Penny Marshall and her people. Brooks the director uses Marshall as a symbol of the crushing realpolitik of showbiz, exactly as he used her brother Garry in "Lost in America" as the crushing realpolitik of Las Vegas. It's the same dynamic: his chipper but basically hangdog and hopeless chap against the blitzkrieg totalitarian ego and wisdom of a real mover and shaker, so far beyond sentiment, so goal-oriented, so cynical, so tough that nothing amuses him (or, in this case, her), and what terrifies her is the fear of losing time on schlemiels like "Albert Brooks."

Next the complication: Depressed at his failure, "Brooks" is flown here to Washington, where he meets with ex-senator and current actor Fred Dalton Thompson, a reliably officious personage. Thompson is playing a character named "Fred Dalton Thompson," again a slightly crazed variant of his nominal reality. Thompson offers him what Marshall never would: a gig.

The government, Thompson explains, wants to know people of the Third World, and one way to know people is to learn what makes them laugh. Thus the armature of the piece: The melancholy, unsure "Brooks" will be sent to India -- which is Hindu mostly, but nobody seems to notice -- where he will find out what makes Muslims (and Hindus) laugh. Then he will produce a 500-page report. That's the funny part: It can't be 496 or even 497 pages: no, no, wouldn't do. Mr. Brooks, really, 500 pages.

And so he's off with two minor functionaries to find out what's funny to Muslims. Well, it turns out what's funny to Muslims isn't much, but what's funny to Protestants is Albert Brooks trying and flailing desperately to get Muslims to laugh. The highlights of "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World" are two standup concerts Brooks gave in two shabby venues in the Third World. Now you have to follow this: The concerts aren't funny, even if they're fundamental Brooks classics, such as his long take on an improvisational comic who really doesn't want and in fact resents suggestions (which he has invited) from the audience and keeps changing them until he arrives at something entirely his own and totally, absolutely, rigidly unimprovised. No, not funny. What is funny is Brooks's -- wait, that should be "Brooks's" -- desperate belief in the material and his befuddlement that the women in burqas , the men in robes and sandals, don't think it's funny.

Two things are happening, and they're both, in their way, funnier than what might be called mere comedy: First is the utter befuddlement of the audience. Really, you can't ask people to make funny faces and get looks like this: slack-jawed, slightly quizzical, slightly annoyed, really classical cluelessness in all its storied, fabled glory. That, in turn, plays off "Brooks's" own rapidly rising despair, which he fights with desperate abandon. Convinced that one of his jokes has flopped because his audience hasn't seen the movie he's parodying, he asked if any have seen it. Punch line: They all have.

Maybe it's not cultural differences. Maybe he just sucks.

So you're left with this delicate condition: the painful need of the comic for acknowledgment, and the complete impenetrability of the material to an audience unversed in the cultural biases upon which it is based. I laughed so hard I thought I'd die, and I must say: But for one other fellow pilgrim in the whole, almost full joint, I was all alone. Not for you? Maybe not for anybody. But definitely for me.

Some other humor is incidental and amusing. In India, Brooks's office -- promised richly appointed digs, he is granted modest, dismal, typical gov-job squalor -- is in a building that handles, in its other professional spaces, a lot of outsourced info and help-line calls for U.S. industry. Funny. The two goons helping him -- including one who advises him on how to have set up the improv gag better -- are funny. The jealous spat between his young Hindi secretary and her boyfriend: funny.

The movie's ending: stupid.

Huh? That's it? Where'd it go? It just sort of fell off the screen. Did the bulb burn out? Brooks set this lame gag up around his attempt to penetrate Pakistan to chat with Pakistani standup comics. Are there any? The movie says yes, and after having failed terribly in India, he knocks 'em dead in Pakistan. But what does he do with this information, how does it factor in the movie's end? He does nothing, it factors not a bit. The movie, as I say, builds toward nothing. The joke, it turns out, has been on us.

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (98 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for mild drug use and profanity.

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