Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World

“Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World” is a great title for a movie. The movie’s concept is great, too; it would even be great if it were employed in real life. And yet, despite all this greatness, the movie is not great. It is merely good. Good is good, but it would have been nice to see something great.

The idea is that the U.S. government, in an attempt to understand Muslims better, sends an American humorist to a Muslim nation to find out what makes them laugh. I think that plan is marvelously insightful (which is probably why the real U.S. government would never think of it). After all, if you know what makes someone laugh, you know what makes them tick. What you find funny says a lot about your values, your background, your philosophy and your life experience.

In the film, the government chooses Albert Brooks, who plays himself and who also wrote and directed the film. (It’s the first time he’s worn those hats since 1999’s “The Muse,” and only the seventh time total.) Brooks was a successful comedian in the 1970s, gradually becoming an actor known for his congenial, worried characters, a sort of Woody Allen-lite. In “Looking for Comedy,” he is well aware of his career’s slump, and of the fact that most people now know him best as the voice of Marlin in “Finding Nemo.” His self-deprecation is endearing, as always, as when he wonders if the government meant to contact Mel Brooks instead of him.

He is soon in India, where he will spend a few weeks interviewing the locals before moving to Pakistan to do the same thing. Why India, you ask? Isn’t that nation mostly Hindu? It is indeed. Some 150 million of its people are Muslim, but that’s only 15 percent. The same percentage of Americans are Baptists, but no one calls the U.S. a “Baptist nation.” So I wonder why the fictional government would send Brooks to India to learn about Muslims, and I wonder why the real Brooks wrote his movie that way. Why not Saudi Arabia?

At any rate, he is in New Delhi, aided by two State Department suits (John Carroll Lynch and Jon Tenney) and a local girl named Maya (Sheetal Sheth), a beautiful journalism grad student who can take dictation and shorthand and can also provide insight into the Eastern sense of humor. Maya and Albert travel the city, asking passersby, “What makes you laugh?” Eventually, their findings are supposed to comprise a 500-page report.

When the street interviews are slow-going, Albert hits on the idea of performing a comedy show himself. Seeing what a local audience responds to will surely be very instructive.

That’s where the film loses steam. Frustratingly, every time Albert Brooks the movie character seems on the verge of gaining insight into the Muslim sense of humor, Albert Brooks the filmmaker prevents it. Albert meets with some Pakistani comedians, but gets roped into performing for them rather than letting them perform for him. His show in New Delhi bombs — but all that suggests is that the Indian sensibility is different from the American one. It tells him (and us) nothing about what Muslims DO laugh at.

Eventually, Brooks’ point is that separate nations barely speak to each other at all, let alone get to know each other well enough to understand their divergent senses of humor. It’s a good point, and Brooks makes it without being aggressive or agitative. The film’s humor is buoyant, wry, and affectionate; if anything, it’s slightly TOO gentle, providing laughs in its first half before petering out into a somewhat belabored whimsy.

You’d think a film with this topic would be more controversial. Heck, the title alone scared Sony Pictures away from it. (Warner Independent is distributing it instead.) I have to wonder if Sony even watched it, because it’s awfully innocuous, a pleasant, occasionally hilarious movie that misses some opportunities but is still a success.

B (1 hr., 38 min.; PG-13, one F-word, some drug references.)