A sense of oddness has been building in America since September 11. Everyone feels it in one way or another. We’re at war: against chameleon enemies that make bombs out of airplanes and sneakers, attack hotel bars, and welcome their own annihilation. All this coexists with a parallel America: one where nothing seems to have happened at all. Every day that al Qaeda plots, Americans are standing in line at the DMV, TiVo-ing Entourage, and buying condos and flipping them.
This may just be how conflict is in the 21st century. But it’s also unrelentingly tense and absurd. And every day that CNN runs Ayman al-Zawahiri’s latest video missive during the same half hour it runs a segment on Brangelina, that almost-palpable tension between mortal fear and farce is going to expand like a tumor. Until something comes along and bursts it: Then we can begin to laugh everything into perspective.
With his characteristic inclination for meta-comedy, Brooks plays himself: a neurotic comedian drifting through Hollywood. Because its first few choices passed, the State department drafts Brooks to fly to India with a pair of handlers (John Carroll Lynch and Jon Tenny) to compile a 500-page report on what makes the Muslim world laugh.
Isn’t India mostly a Hindu joint? Brooks the character gets a non-answer from State and, promised a medal for his service, bolts for the subcontinent. Brooks the writer/director owes his audience an explanation for this geocultural disconnect. What he eventually provides goes a long way to explaining why his movie doesn’t go anywhere.
Brooks’s slow, artificially uncomplicated scenes punctuated with Seinfeldian dialogue don’t work as well here as they have in his previous films. With the title (which caused Sony Pictures, its original distributor, to drop it as it was too incendiary) and the subject matter, Brooks sets his viewers up to expect something more than the single-minded self-deprecation he delivers.
Once he’s settled in New Delhi, Brooks picks up a pointless Indian assistant, Maya (Sheetal Sheth). She takes notes as he randomly stops Indians on the street and assaults them with jokes. He subjects an auditorium full of stone-faced Indians to his old stand-up routine. (This is the one moment when Brooks’s meta-comedy comes close to delivering. In interviews he’s said that part of his motivation for making the movie was unifying different cultures through laughter. Ugh. But having American audiences watching, though not laughing, at an Indian audience that’s watching, though not laughing, at Albert Brooks, is a clever put-on.) He meets with Al Jazeera executives and is offered a part in their new sitcom, That Darn Jew.
For as far and as wide and as aimlessly as he wanders, though, nowhere does Brooks the character or Brooks the director remember that the whole production was supposed to have something to do with Muslims. At no point does he seek out an imam, or a halal butcher, to entertain. The Indian and Pakistani governments can’t figure out what he’s up to either, and after their spies overhear him innocently tell an Iranian that it’s okay to bomb, he’s whisked out of the country to strains of “America the Beautiful.”
Looking’s last five minutes, where Brooks’s wife toasts her returning spouse as “the Kissinger of Comedy” lays out the earnest cluelessness of Americans that, the audience realizes, Brooks has been trying to make the center of the movie all along. Again, clever, but not funny–just vaguely confusing.
So, why was a comedy about the Muslim world so contextually divorced from it?
Brooks has offered competing explanations for setting the film in India. The first is that he would have liked to set it in Saudi Arabia, but it’s not easy to get filming permits there. Nonsense. There are a lot of cities more Islamic than New Delhi. And even if there weren’t, it’s not that hard to get a few dump trucks full of sand to a studio lot.
The second explanation is more enlightening: that the setting reflects the movie’s central goof–that Americans are so generally uninformed about Muslims that we lump a country that’s 80-percent Hindu together with the Muslim world. This could be riotous to a Bangladeshi audience, for whom the difference between Hindu and Muslim is as clear as night and day. But for audiences of Americans, who Brooks is saying (probably accurately) aren’t quite clear on the distinction, it’s nothing.
Whether he knew it or not, Albert Brooks made a comedy for the Muslim world, not about it. When someone born and raised in Kansas watches Brooks pull an Indian man off the street and tell him a Polish joke it will take a moment (i.e., a comic eternity) for them to grasp how absurdly alien a Polish joke is in New Delhi, and by extension, how preposterous it is that Albert doesn’t realize this. Someone who watches it from a perspective closer to the Indian man’s will get it quicker.
Any cathartic chuckles Looking elicits won’t come from Americans grappling with a post-9/11 world; they’ll come from a world grappling with a post-9/11 America. This is a good thing. When America caricatures itself–here through Brooks the character’s bungling and inflated self-regard–it’s harder for our enemies to do it. But it won’t be profitable to play it in Peoria.
Warner Independent may realize this soon. There’s another, more important, lesson too. No comedy can catalyze a 9/11 catharsis unless it begins by confronting exactly what Americans are afraid of.
Turn your eyes to perhaps the only example of an effective catharsis comedy in the pop cannon: Dr. Strangelove. The bedrock of everything that Stanley Kubrick did right with it was to understand what he was trying to make funny. His audience was terrified that the bombs would start falling and they would all die. So Kubrick told a ridiculous story that culminated with the bombs falling. Today, Americans are afraid that a birthday card tucked with Anthrax spores is making its way through the mail, and that the Arab-American man in front of them at Starbucks is mumbling something prayer-like under his breath. The comedy that America needs has to start there, and make everything that flows from that place–suicide belts, TSA screeners, Orwellian eavesdropping programs–even more farcical than it is.
Albert Brooks could hardly bring himself to even acknowledge the Muslim world, more or less have fun with the fear Americans have of it. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is a dud.
It may not be possible to make 21st-century America’s Dr. Strangelove for five or ten more years. Until it is, Americans will be on the edge of their seats.
–Louis Wittig is a freelance writer in New York City.