Albert Brooks moves onto the banana-peel-strewn stage of world events with funny results.
In his new comedy, writer/director/actor Albert Brooks plays "Albert Brooks," a peevish, fretful Hollywood comic who's had some success (voicing a fish in "Finding Nemo") and some disappointments (co-starring in a remake of "The In-Laws"). He's entering the "can't get arrested" phase of his career when he receives an intimidating summons from the government. He's being recruited for a cultural "Mission: Impossible": finding out what makes Muslims laugh.
"There are a whole helluva lot of people we don't understand," explains a diplomat, despite "fighting and spying -- the usual things." The State Department wants Brooks to visit India and Pakistan and prepare a 500-page report.
His head turned by assurances he'll get the Medal of Freedom ("the pretty one with the ribbon"), Brooks heads to New Delhi. Clueless about Asian traditions, he tries to put his subjects at ease by dressing in flamboyant formal sherwanis (the local equivalent of a tuxedo) and curly-toed Ali Baba slippers. (You get the feeling he tried on some turbans, too, but decided they were a little over the top.)
The fish-out-of-water comedy reaches painfully funny heights of mutual incomprehension as Brooks tests Polish jokes, bathroom humor and improvisation on bewildered Indians.
Brooks is too sympathetic to be an Ugly American caricature, and he scores a small personal breakthrough, teaching his Indian assistant Maya (Sheetal Sheth) the American custom of sarcasm. But he has no idea how to accomplish his assignment. Appalled by the enormity of the task and culturally far out of his depth, Brooks spurts flop-sweat like a lawn sprinkler.
A standup show that makes fun of American show-business clichés draws only a few titters, but Brooks' anxiety is priceless. "How many of you speak English?" he asks the packed auditorium defensively. "Raise your hands." Everyone does. "Ohhh, God," he groans, wilting. On a stealthy trip to Pakistan he performs for a half-dozen aspiring comics huddled around a campfire. They don't get his jokes, but, high on hashish, they find Brooks a hoot. Afterwards, Brooks congratulates himself on a killer performance. A meeting with Al Jazeera begins with Brooks imagining himself nominated for a Nobel Prize and ends with the programmers giving Brooks some deflating career advice.
Brooks scores a deadpan bull's-eye with these potshots at the self-absorbed performer's ego, but he's also satirizing the American habit of barging into situations we half-understand and patting ourselves on the back until our shoulders are sore. Brooks' bumbling ratchets up international tensions as India and Pakistan, spooked by this American's baffling activities, move to the brink of nuclear war.
Brooks is a master of ingratiating comic self-deprecation. He has a magical ability to make his foibles endearing without letting his character off the hook. Call him the Schnooky American.
Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World
*** out of four stars
The setup: Albert Brooks goes on a State Department mission to discover what makes Muslims laugh. Hoping to become "the Henry Kissinger of comedy."