- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 19, 2006

Sometimes Albert Brooks doesn’t play a character named Albert Brooks. But even then, he doesn’t stray far from his comic persona.

Smart, somewhat sophisticated. Neurotic, for sure. Big-time navel gazer.

That inward gaze turned outward after the September 11 attacks.

Mr. Brooks says the subject of the clash between the West and Islam stared him down until he did something about it.

“Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World” finds the pudgy performer playing a comic named Albert Brooks who gets sent to India by the U.S. government to try and find out what makes Muslims laugh.

The film is Mr. Brooks’ attempt to bridge the gap, as he says one sheik put it after a screening of the film in Dubai, “from here to here.” Mr. Brooks holds his hands far apart telling a story he’s rather proud of, but we don’t look to the comic director for physical nuance. He’s a verbal clown in the best of his films, a man whose craggy voice reaches its breaking point seconds before his characters do.

Recall his David Howard blowing his stack over his wife losing their life’s savings in 1985’s “Lost in America.”

The term “nest egg” will never be the same.

Mr. Brooks, 58, understands the culture is far more sensitive when it comes to the war on terror.

“I wouldn’t have tried this one year after 9/11, but I thought enough time had passed that I could put comedy and Muslim in the same sentence and it would be all right.”

Sony didn’t see it that way.

The movie studio famously balked at releasing the film with that title, allowing Warner Independent Pictures to ride to Mr. Brooks’ rescue.

“I’m never surprised by what studios do, but [Sony’s] rationale was sort of surprising,” he says.

Mr. Brooks, clad in black and sporting tinted glasses, is quick to defend his film.

“I didn’t make fun of religion or make fun of sexual mores,” he says. “Look at the movies that are exported to that part of the world… teenage sex comedies where people put their penis in apple pies. In the long run, that’s what keeps America’s reputation as the Great Satan alive.”

The writer/director did come away from the film with a fresh perspective on the subject.

“The tension sitting over our world, the thing that made me want to prick the balloon even in a small, little way, they have the same tension,” he says.

The Los Angeles native is polite, but resolute, when asked why the film isn’t as political as it might have been. After all, it seems like every other film lately takes shots at either President Bush, the country’s foreign policy or both.

“It was difficult beyond belief to get this done,” he says. “I have to put lumps of sugar with this subject or no one will make the movie and no one will distribute it.”

Mr. Brooks may enjoy the respect of his peers, but he lacks the clout that guarantees a greenlight.

He began as a stand-up comic and writer, appearing on a host of variety shows willing to provide a platform for his cerebral brand of humor.

“I’ve never been a mainstream guy,” he says. “From my first appearance in 1968 on Steve Allen, when half the audience laughed and half the audience didn’t, it occurred to me this is gonna happen.”

He leveraged his comedy appearances into a modest acting career, starting with 1976’s “Taxi Driver,” and later found richer results with his own films.

Most hit the mark, but as an actor for hire he proved less accurate, witness flops like “The Scout” and “I’ll Do Anything.” His turn as the sweaty TV reporter in 1987’s “Broadcast News” earned him an Oscar nod for best supporting actor, yet this thinking man’s comic may be best known for his vocal work in 2003’s “Finding Nemo.”

He’s never made it easy on himself, he admits, but it’s not from any counterculture angst. In illustration, he recalls an argument with superagent Michael Ovitz years ago.

” ‘I don’t understand,’ he said. ‘Why do you always take the hard road?’ ‘You think I see two roads,’ ” says Mr. Brooks, his voice reaching into the comedic growl typical of his best on-screen rants. ” ‘I’m the world’s laziest guy … that’s the only road I see.’”

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