By Phil Hall | January 20, 2006

Albert Brooks’ “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World” has a genuinely amusing idea: the U.S. government sends the funnyman on a semi-official mission to win the hearts and minds of the Islamic culture by trying to determine what they find funny.

Unfortunately, Brooks errs badly by having his film centered in India. Yes, India – which, as most people know, is not a predominantly Muslim country. Rather than look for comedy in the Muslim world, Brooks uses this film to make fun of contemporary Indian society (particularly its recent success in outsourced telephone rep services) and to engage in travelogue sightseeing (including an inevitable stop at the Taj Mahal).

Brooks’ attempt at satire are equally lame. He is followed by a pair of none-too-efficient State Department officials who promise him everything to aid his journey but only provide him with a cheap little unfurnished office and a calendar. A meeting with planners from the Al-Jazeera television network results in having Brooks being pitched as the potential star of a new sitcom called “That Darn Jew.” A minor subplot has Brooks sneaking illegally across the Pakistani border for a wilderness meeting with a bunch of “aspiring comedians.” Perhaps the idea of actually shooting the film in Pakistan wasn’t feasible, or maybe Brooks decided that comedy could not be found in a predominantly Muslim country.

Brooks also has a pretty assistant (Sheetal Sheth) with a jealous Iranian boyfriend, but Brooks decides to do a variation of Robert Young’s “Father Knows Best” mediation skills to solve their relationship woes rather than encourage young lady to assert her own independence.

The film is only truly funny when Brooks pokes fun at his own alleged lack of talent. A disastrous comedy concert in New Delhi featuring an abbreviated version of his old stand-up shtick is hilarious both for Brooks’ antics and the Indian audience’s bored reaction. But the best part of the film is the irrelevant opening sequence when Brooks is humiliated by Penny Marshall during a casting interview for a possible remake of the James Stewart movie “Harvey.” Marshall, 30 years and at least 30 pounds beyond her “Laverne and Shirley” peak, is still a hilarious comic actress and it is a wasted opportunity that Brooks didn’t tap further into her energy to fuel this running-on-empty vehicle.

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