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Who's Laughing? 

Albert Brooks looks for comedy and comes up empty.

The washed-up actor-comic Albert Brooks plays a washed-up character, also named Albert Brooks, and the viewer cringes for both of them.
  • The washed-up actor-comic Albert Brooks plays a washed-up character, also named Albert Brooks, and the viewer cringes for both of them.
Albert Brooks, the once-funny comic-turned-filmmaker, plays a once-funny comic-turned-filmmaker named Albert Brooks in Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, which he also wrote and directed. It's the second time Brooks has played himself, more or less; the first was in 1979, when he made Real Life, in which he played a filmmaker whose quest to film a normal family actually destroys one. That movie was Brooks' first and remains his funniest, not only as a spot-on parody of PBS' 1973 An American Family (an antiquated reference now), but also as a prophetic hint of what would become our unforgivable obsession with the phoniness of reality TV. Real Life endures because it offered uncomfortably profound truths obscured behind the guise of studio-slapstick unreality. And it was the precursor to the brand of irritainment offered up by The Larry Sanders Show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and the original BBC series The Office.

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, Brooks' seventh film and first in six years, desperately wants to remind us of that Albert Brooks -- the one who made us squirm and giggle, the one who risked humiliation in the name of humor. The movie opens with Brooks meeting director Penny Marshall for her remake of Harvey, itself a sick joke. Marshall, who acts and looks here like a drag queen doing a LaVerne routine, can't even be bothered to take the meeting; she dismisses him after recalling his role in that wretched In-Laws remake. Brooks is just a pitiable reject: He's out of work and desperately in need of money, if only to finance his wife's obsession with buying antique crap on eBay.

The premise has promise: What does a former genius do when he's running out of options (and, perhaps, talent)? But Brooks squanders it, as he has everything he's done in recent years, and Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World finds not a single laugh over there (India and Pakistan, that is) or, alas, over here. You can look all you want, but like Brooks, you won't find anything.

Without any acting gigs, Brooks winds up accepting a job from the U.S. government that requires him to travel to India -- not a Middle Eastern country, itself a disappointing turn of events -- to find out what makes Muslims laugh. He's supposed to write a 500-page report, a fact we're reminded of a thousand times as he struggles to find the answer -- which is, simply, that Brooks doesn't make anyone laugh, regardless of religion or nationality. (According to Law & Order's Fred Thompson, also playing himself, Brooks was far down on the list of choices for the assignment; the funny people, apparently, were working.) So he spends the entire movie interviewing people (actors, not real people) on the street and prepping for a stand-up concert that's so wholly amateurish and unfunny that a Brooks first-timer will be tempted to wonder whether he's not in fact a dull and humorless man who's never told a joke in his life.

There are some who believe Brooks peaked with 1985's Lost in America, which was the final installment in his loosely defined Americana trilogy that began with Real Life and continued with 1981's Modern Romance, about the fine line between true love and creepy obsession. Others are more generous, adding 1991's Defending Your Life to the short list; it's more sweet than funny, which goes a long way. But there's no defending his latter movies, especially 1999's The Muse; the irony of Brooks making a dreadful movie about losing his gift was lost on no one, save the filmmaker himself.

Allegedly, Warner Independent wound up distributing this movie because Sony was frightened of the title's political connotations. Don't believe it: The studio was cutting its losses, and you'd be advised to do the same.

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