looking for comedy in the muslim world

WILL’S CINEMATIC HALL OF FAME

Albert Brooks’ Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (2005)

Have you seen Drive yet? It’s really good for a number of reasons, one of them being Albert Brooks’ performance as the chief villain, a low-level gang leader who operates out of a strip-mall pizza joint. Brooks is so imposing and scary that I’m frankly surprised nobody had ever thought to cast him as a villain before. I mean, look at him - he’s a large, gruff-voiced man a face “like an open-faced club sandwich” (to quote one of Pauline Kael’s most memorable descriptions).

But while Brooks has never played a character quite so evil (unless you count Hank Scorpio, of course), he has played enough irredeemable assholes to undercut his reputation as “the East Coast Woody Allen” (a pretty ridiculous label, considering how cold and brittle some of his self-directed films like Real Life and Modern Romance are). In 2005’s grossly underrated Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, Brooks plays himself as a washed up actor/comedian commissioned by Senator Fred Thompson (as himself) to travel to India and write a 500-page report on what makes the Muslims laugh. Never mind that Islam is hardly India’s dominant religion, or that Brooks’ post-modern, deconstructionist take on American stand-up comedy could only possibly work in western, English-speaking countries - Brooks flies to India and spends a few weeks there before causing an international incident and patting himself on the back for a job well done.

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World was financed by Fox Searchlight, who dropped it due to its incendiary title; Warner Independent picked it up, then dumped it into theatres with little fanfare. To say it’s been forgotten would be to mistakenly suggest it was even noticed in the first place. Too bad, because this is one of Brooks’ funniest movies. Far from the politically incorrect satire its title suggests, Looking for Comedy is a good-natured but pointed parable for the Iraq war and American ignorance, and continues Brooks’ obsession with the craft of stand-up comedy (this time, the centrality of context and culture to humour). And there’s Fred Thompson’s cameo, which is pretty great.