When will it be time to start finding humor in Sept. 11 and its myriad tragic cilia?
For the comic writer/director Albert Brooks, the time came a few years ago, when he dreamed up Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, his story of an eponymous comedian (portrayed by Brooks) who's sent by the U.S. government -- obviously a fictional one, and not the current humorless cabal -- to India and Pakistan to write a 500-page report about what makes Muslims titter.
Senator-turned-actor Fred Thompson, a conservative who's not afraid to make gentle fun of Uncurious George, heads the shifty commission that sends Brooks on his odyssey. They set him up in a crappy New Delhi office building filled with outsourced employees ("This is the White House, how may I direct your call?"), then turn him loose on the people of India, most of whom are Hindus anyway. His guide is Maya (Shaheen Sheth), a sweet young woman with a master's degree who doesn't get his humor and develops a crush on him.
This isn't quite a 9/11 joke. But Brooks fosters the association with gags about a frustrated young Iranian who was "the funniest guy in my explosives class," and an underground society of would-be Pakistani comics whom Brooks can meet only at night after an illegal border crossing (he does his routine for them -- and he kills!). Of course, he learns nothing about what makes Muslims laugh, although Al-Jazeera does offer him a sit-com (called, roughly translated, "That Darn Jew").
Brooks has always been a quirky and cerebral filmmaker without being a truly intellectual one. His early films, including Modern Romance and Lost in America, were often trenchantly hilarious; his recent ones (The Muse, for example) have been more off-key than off-center. Brooks' screen persona, like the New York-born Woody Allen's, is self-absorbed. But Brooks (birth name: Albert Einstein) is a Hollywood native -- the son of the vaudevillian/comic Parkyakarkus -- who's never lived in the real world. So his movie becomes a show-biz parody of his own pathetic search for a job and an audience, more like Looking for Laughs from the Muslim World (and it's "Muslim," not "Moslem," so he can make a fabric joke).
As part of his reconnaissance effort, Brooks performs for an Indian audience, hoping their laughter will enlighten him. Of course, because his routine lacks cultural context, the audience watches silently and applauds politely. This is an astute satiric metaphor for America's own worldly ignorance, and Brooks gets off some good one-liners about his profession and himself (he's especially good at droll relationship and family jokes). No doubt that's what he intended in Looking for Comedy, which is finally a benign satire on America, and not a send-up of our Islamic brethren. I just hope they get the joke.