Back in 1963, a silly Bob Hope picture by the name of Call Me Bwana offered the concept of Hope as a bogus authority on Africa who was sent by President Kennedy to the innermost recesses of the continent to help discover the location of a spy satellite that came down where it wasn’t meant to. Here we are 43 years later with Albert Brooks as a supposed authority on comedy sent by President Bush to the Muslim world (well, sort of) to attempt to find out what makes Muslims laugh.
After slogging through 98 minutes of this, it strikes me that Brooks would be better advised to stay home and try to discover what makes Americans laugh. Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World makes Brooks look less like an expert on comedy than Call Me Bwana made Hope look like an expert on Africa. That, however, is apparently supposed to be the joke — at least to the degree I can figure out what the joke is. However, the film is ultimately tiresome. And when I say “ultimately,” I mean it in the sense of “after about 10 minutes.”
The problem — or one of the problems — is that there are few things less funny in an extended dose than watching someone trying to get a laugh and failing. Sure, it’s good for a quick bit. To cite Bob Hope again, there’s a moment in Road to Bali where he and Bing Crosby tell a couple of bad jokes to an audience from a different culture and receive a chilly response, prompting Hope to assume the pose of a radio announcer and say, “It’s a little late, so goodnight, folks,” whereupon he and Bing do a musical turn and exit the stage.
For Bob and Bing, it’s a throwaway gag. Brooks, on the other hand, turns the identical concept into the centerpiece of his movie in a sequence where he tries to find out what makes Muslims laugh by giving a comedy concert in a borrowed school auditorium. (That he doesn’t even know whether the members of his audience are Muslims is a separate issue.) Expanding on the idea of a momentary embarrassment, he stretches this conceit out for nearly a full reel in a scene of the most astonishing blend of masochism and narcissism. He desperately trots out every wheezy gag in his arsenal (recycled from his stand-up days) in an attempt to elicit even a single laugh, and fails miserably.
The gag — such as it is — is that the jokes aren’t funny regardless of religious persuasion. So what we’re left with is the spectacle of Brooks deservedly bombing and stupidly soldiering on. The humor, I suppose, lies in his stupidity, and stupefying lack of talent.
All of this might serve some purpose if it led to some kind of real satire. The undercurrent may be there: Is looking for comedy in the Muslim world a strained metaphor for looking for weapons of mass destruction? There’s a hint of that, but not enough to go anywhere.
As satire, the film is amazingly toothless, something that might be guessed from the inclusion of conservative former Sen. Fred Dalton Thompson as himself in the cast. If that doesn’t tell you where we’re going — or rather, not going — the fact that India is the chosen location rather than a predominantly Muslim country ought to. At the very end, the film veers off into something like satire — only to wimp out and kill the satire dead less than a minute later.
Brooks has firmly planted himself into what can only be called a “star vehicle” along the lines of a Bob Hope or Woody Allen personality comedy. But Brooks isn’t a star and never has been. Though much prized in some quarters, his films have never been more than niche items. And it helps in the realm of personality comedies to actually have a personality — something Brooks is definitely lacking.
To make matters worse, it’s clear that Brooks thinks he’s made something more than a personality comedy. The plot, the foreign setting with its “quaint” locals, the inclusion of a young woman trapped in a dubious relationship, the phone calls from his wife … why does this sound so very familiar? Could it be because it’s more than a little like Lost in Translation?
Unfortunately for Brooks, there’s nothing lost in the translation here. It’s painfully clear: This is a catastrophically unfunny movie. Rated PG-13 for drug content and brief strong language.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke