Looking for Comedy in the Muslim
The divide between the
Eastern and Western world has become so cavernous that just the title of
this movie is kind of shocking. In the United States, the words comedy
and Muslim have become rather mutually exclusive. Albert Brooks had a
rather subversive idea in this world where terms like "Axis of Evil" are
being bandied about. Why not try to understand the Muslims as people?
What makes them tick? What makes them laugh? Do they like sugar
in their coffee? Do they like rock or rap? Paper or plastic? Why do they hate us
so much? And could they still hate us if we got a pie in the face?
It's an interesting idea.
One of the oldest rules in conflict is to get to know your enemy. In
this surreal new comedy, comedian Albert Brooks plays an unemployed comedian
named Albert Brooks, who is approached by the government to go to India and
Pakistan and figure out what exactly it is that makes the natives laugh.
He is asked by a former-Senator-turned actor named Fred Dalton Thompson (who
is played by former-Senator-turned-actor Fred Dalton Thompson, a.k.a. the
current D.A. on Law and Order.)
The job is of course way
above Brooks' head, but he gives it the old college try, making a fool out
of himself, bombing completely as a comedian and mistakenly causing an
This isn't the first time
that Brooks has played a character called Albert Brooks, he also did it in
his debut feature Real Life. I say a character named Albert,
because the man is a wicked satire of the writer/director, but isn't exactly
him, anymore than John Malkovich really played himself in Being John
Malkovich or even Jennifer Tilly portrayed herself in Seed of Chucky.
Albert Brooks in the film may share a filmography with the star (leading
to some wonderfully self-mocking quips about The In-Laws) but he is a
mock version, a larger-than-life cartoon.
Brooks' assignment is
assisted by two uptight G-men, hilariously played by John Carroll Lynch and
Jon Tenney. When they get to India, they hire a native assistant
(played by the luminously beautiful and wonderfully innocent-seeming Sheetal
Sheth) and rent out an office in the slums of town. Some of the
funniest moments -- in an extremely funny film -- come from a throwaway
running gag about a call-center in the same building as Brooks' dilapidated
office. I won't ruin the laugh by explaining more, just suffice it to
say that it is one of those rare recurring jokes in film which actually gets
stronger and funnier the more that it is milked and it leads to some of the
biggest chuckles I've heard in a theater in a long time.
This is all followed by some
wonderfully awkward attempts of Brooks to fit in, ingratiate himself with
the Muslim people, and find out what makes them laugh. Brooks sensibly
makes the Muslims seem intelligent, smart and approachable. Any
mocking he reserves for himself (and the bureaucracy of the US government),
allowing himself to be the figurative rich guy in a top hat who slips on a
In the end, Brooks' film
posits, if we could just laugh at ourselves maybe the rest of the world
could too. Is this film likely to even make a little dent in the
problems in the Middle East? Probably not. However it never
hurts to remind people that they are not just villains, they are people with
hopes and dreams and loves and wants, just like people in the US.
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Posted: December 23, 2005.