Woody Allen has been getting his best reviews in more than a decade for Match Point, the London-set film that should be debuting in Memphis in the coming weeks. But before the Allen film arrives, a new film from fellow Jewish-American comic writer/actor/director Albert Brooks, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, sneaks onto local screens.
This is fitting because, though Allen has more cachet, the two men in some ways are almost mirror images of one another: "Jewish film poets of American neurosis, ruling the West and East Coasts as if they were separate cultural fiefdoms," in the words of critic Jonathan Rosenbaum.
I haven't seen Match Point, which may well be one of Allen's best, and Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, Brooks' seventh directorial effort since his 1979 debut Real Life, is probably his least impressive film. But I'll take minor Brooks over major Allen most of the time.
Rosenbaum may identify both filmmakers as "poets of American neurosis," but in this regard Allen and Brooks couldn't be more different. Allen's American neurosis is one hypersensitive to its own perceived shortcomings, forever grasping at European standards of high artistry from within a gated upper-Manhattan community of the white, affluent, and intellectual.
Rooted in Los Angeles media culture, Brooks' movies are more at home amid what Allen would no doubt perceive as American vulgarity. The American anxiety -- over status, comfort, control, career success -- embodied by the Brooks character is more oblivious to outside attitudes, a monstrous, utterly familiar, and painfully funny combination of arrogance and neediness.
This is why Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, in which Brooks, playing himself, is dispatched by the State Department to study Muslim humor, is much more about America than about "the Muslim world" and why it's a film Allen could never make.
A gentle, knowing take on the "ugly American" conceit, Brooks' American abroad sets out to study another culture blithely unaware of his own rabid self-absorption. But what makes the film -- indeed, all Brooks' comedies -- work is that, unlike most comedians who direct themselves (think not only of Allen but of Roberto Benigni), he doesn't privilege himself as a performer. Brooks' characters are always self-absorbed; his films never are.
Brooks often plays an artist of some sort -- a filmmaker in Real Life, a novelist in Mother, a screenwriter in The Muse -- but his films never suggest he's a good one, and this is true even playing himself. Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World opens with an excruciating but priceless casting meeting where Brooks is hoping to be hired as the lead in a remake of the Jimmy Stewart film Harvey for a director (Penny Marshall, playing herself) who can barely conceal her complete lack of interest.
Later, Brooks is summoned to Washington to meet with a government commission, headed by former Senator Fred Thompson, which wants Brooks to spearhead a fact-finding mission about what makes Muslims laugh in order to improve American cultural understanding. Why me? Brooks wonders. Well, the job was offered to other comedians, but "they were all working."
Nevertheless, Brooks accepts the assignment, not out of patriotic duty or interest in the project but out of the promise of a Medal of Freedom at the end, which might raise his acting fee. With career desperation and self-interest -- as always -- as his impetus, Brooks heads overseas.
It's been a mild controversy that Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is set (and shot) in India and Pakistan rather than the Middle East. Brooks has said it would be untenable for an American Jewish filmmaker to make such a movie in the Middle East, but the setting also works in the context of the film. That Brooks' project is not centered in the heart of the Muslim world and that he seems uninterested in the distinction between the Muslims, Hindis, and Sikhs that make up his audience fits Brooks' perception of American engagement abroad.
Brooks' dry humor reaches an apex when he sponsors a "comedy concert" for English-speaking people in New Delhi. His goal is to perform every variety of comedy -- from slapstick to "intellectual humor" -- and to learn what "makes Muslims laugh" by how the different material connects. Never mind the laughably unscientific nature of this conceit: What makes it even more ludicrously funny is that Brooks is too self-absorbed to even follow through on this concept, instead launching into the kind of intentionally unfunny meta-comedy spoofs on ventriloquists and improv routines that launched his own early career as his Indian audience sits in bewildered silence.
The ultimate failure of Brooks' mission doesn't preclude a "hail the conquering hero" welcome, of course. His "mission accomplished," he returns unaware of what his actual impact has been. It's hard to imagine Karen Hughes' current real-life public diplomacy mission in the "Muslim world" ending much differently.
Despite its ostensible differences -- it's set overseas, he plays himself -- Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World very much fits in with the other anti-sentimental, observational comedies in Brooks' oeuvre. It's no match for such career peaks as Lost in America (a 1985 satire on boomer nostalgia and career desperation more achingly relevant than ever) or Mother (which pairs Brooks with a luminous Debbie Reynolds), but after six years of Brooks voicing animated fish (Finding Nemo) and collecting paychecks in forgettable flicks (The In-Laws), it's great to have a new movie from him.