Albert Brooks has had a tough time of it these last 15 years or so. After writing, directing, and starring in the hilarious Lost in America in 1985 and Defending Your Life in 1991, Brooks had a bit of a creative losing streak. The mid to late 1990s saw him churn out I’ll Do Anything, Mother, and The Muse, critical and commercial duds all. To be sure he has turned in some nice acting performances in the meantime, but his general creativity seems to be on the slide. His latest effort Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, now out on DVD, doesn’t stop the downward trend.
In Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World Albert Brooks plays himself at the basic point he is in his career. Fresh off the success of Finding Nemo, Brooks is trying to get acting work but can’t get himself cast in a remake of Harvey, since he is not, as the casting people note, “the next Jimmy Stewart.” He gets summoned to Washington D.C. and asked by former Senator and actor Fred Dalton Thompson (also playing himself) to help the country learn more about the Muslim people. It seems someone has come up with the idea that if you know what makes a group of people laugh, you can learn more about them. Why did they pick Brooks for this assignment? A few earlier choices had already turned them down. The rest of the movie sorta exists on the level of that joke, not terrible, but pretty obvious and not worth more than a chuckle.
To find out what makes the Muslim funny-bone rattle, Brooks heads to India and therein lies the first problem with this movie. Why set the majority of a movie in India when you are supposedly trying to find out something about Muslims? Apparently 10% of India’s population is Muslim, but why not go to Saudi Arabia or Indonesia where it’s 90% of the population or more. Heck, why not go to Russia, where the Muslim population is also about 10%. It could be that the joke is on me and that is exactly why Brooks went to India. Maybe the fact that you go to a movie with this title and end up in India is Brooks laughing at the audience. Maybe, but I doubt it.
The location is not the main problem with the film though, the real problem is that this could easily have been called Looking for Comedy in the [Insert Location Here] World. The focus of the movie isn’t the Muslim world, it’s Brooks poking fun at himself. He could have made the same movie in San Antonio. Even the jokes about him being a Jew amid a hostile crowd would work in a lot of places here in the good old USA. He gets off a few witty remarks and when his deadpan delivery is on, no one can really touch him, but these moments are few and far between.
His supporting cast, including Jon Tenney and John Carroll Lynch as State Department aides and Sheetal Sheth as his local assistant, try gamely to set up the boss, but they don't seem to serve much purpose. Brooks' platonic relationship with Sheth is very sweet but doesn't lead anywhere. An idiotic subplot about Brooks' mission being misunderstood by the Indian and Pakistani governments and almost leading to full scale war is tacked on for no reason. It's not that funny and is explained away by one line before the closing credits.
In the end it’s never really clear what, if anything, makes Muslims laugh. It’s not clear if Brooks ever intended to try to find out, or even intended to say anything about Muslims at all. But he probably wanted us to laugh at his effort, and while we do, we don’t do it often enough. The whole thing never rises much above an interesting premise and a clever title.
Either someone was very lazy or very cheap, or both, when it came to putting together the extras on this disc. No commentary, no featurettes, no interviews, and no reason to add this thing to your DVD collection. It's not that this movie cried out for 2-disc special edition treatment to be sure, but why not make the most of what little audience you did get the first time around and put some effort into making this an overall entertaining disc.
There are exactly two extras on the disc. The first is the obligatory deleted scenes. The scenes have no introduction and no commentary, so it’s not clear why they were deleted. They are about as funny (or unfunny) as the stuff that went into the movie, so why keep them out? Also, they are presented all in a row as soon as you click on the menu item, unlike most other discs where you can choose the scenes individually.
The second (and final) extra is a trailer. It’s like most trailers, it makes the movie look funnier than it is, but it’s not so impressive that it makes up for the missing extras you would expect in this day and age. I probably shouldn’t even be writing much about it, but when it is 50% of the total extras, I’m somewhat stuck.
The disc itself looks and sounds very good and the menus are easy to navigate. While the only audio track is English, the subtitles are in English, Spanish, and French. A very disappointing presentation of a movie which could only have been helped by a few more extras or maybe a Brooks commentary.