- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 19, 2006

If anyone could bridge the comedy chasm between the West and the Muslim world, our money is on Albert Brooks. West Coast Woody can find the funny in everything from tragic breakups (1981’s “Modern Romance”) to death (1991’s “Defending Your Life”).

It’s what makes “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World” such an exasperating affair.

Mr. Brooks’ latest lets him spoof his own image, government red tape and the image of the U.S. as a curious but wholly out of touch superpower.

It’s serious business in a post-September 11 world, but Mr. Brooks doesn’t seem nearly as interested in finding solutions as he is in poking fun at outsourcing and his own career woes.

“Looking” finds Mr. Brooks playing himself for the first time since 1979’s “Real Life,” or at least a variation on himself he takes delight in mocking.

Our Mr. Brooks is auditioning for a remake of “Harvey” when “Looking” opens. It’s embarrassing enough to fight for a role in a pointless remake, but watching director Penny Marshall — playing herself — humiliate Albert in the process is pure comic gold.

So far, so funny, and suddenly we wish Mr. Brooks would forget about his cultural mission and spend a whole film skewering Hollywood.

Instead, he shifts gears to the home front, where a letter inviting him to a secret State Department meeting awaits.

The government wants him to travel to India to find out what makes Muslims laugh. Figure that out, the bureaucrats tell him, and the West will make some headway in the war on terror.

Albert could walk away with the Medal of Freedom for his troubles, an honor the vain comic can’t pass up.

Armed with a pair of bumbling assistants (Jon Tenney, John Carroll Lynch), Albert hires a winsome secretary to help him write his “500 page” report, a task weighing over his head like an executioner’s sword.

Albert begins by attempting a few impromptu street interviews with little luck. Undaunted, he decides to stage a stand-up special to see just what jokes reach across the cultural divide.

It’s an homage to Mr. Brooks’ real stand-up roots, although audiences unfamiliar with his bits lampooning improv comedy and ventriloquism will find the scene interminable.

When a band of Pakistani comics gently “kidnap” Albert so they can learn from him up close, the film appears to edge toward a cultural flashpoint. Instead, the meeting sparks a final act that neither illuminates the subject nor matches the film’s best comic sequences.

“Looking” stands as a marginal upgrade over 1999’s “The Muse,” Mr. Brooks’ last outing behind the camera. And few films can deliver the kind of dry humor he injects, particularly during the daffy-secretary-application sequence.

Mr. Brooks’ “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World” feels more like a rough draft of a stinging social essay than the promised olive branch bringing together disparate cultures.

**1/2

TITLE “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World”

RATING: PG-13 (Adult language, mild violence and mature themes)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Albert Brooks. Music composed by Michael Giacchino.

RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes

WEB SITE: www.wip.warnerbros.com/lookingforcomedy

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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