FILM REVIEW:  “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World” - Look for comedy elsewhere

Zahir Janmohamed

Posted Mar 1, 2006      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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FILM REVIEW:  “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World” - Look for comedy elsewhere

By Zahir Janmohamed, January 20, 2006

Watching Albert Brooks in “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World” is a bit like watching William Hung of American Idol sing: we want to root for him because of his sincerity and his effort, but, like Hung, his talent is no match for the material he tackles.

In the press packet for the film, Brooks says that “If an Indian audience or a Muslim audience could laugh because we’re making fun of ourselves a little bit it certainly couldn’t hurt.”

But the joke is not just on him or Americans but also on (and at the expense) of South Asians and Muslims who are portrayed as primitive bellicose buffoons. The premise is that the US State Department wants to understand what makes Muslims laugh. Brooks is then dispatched (with two State Department minders) to India to complete his research.

After accepting the position, we see Brooks complaining about flying coach class and later about having to take a taxi instead of a government car. I imagine Brooks penned this as a commentary on the US government’s frequent failure to equip its people with proper resources, as we see in Iraq with the US troops. Brooks exploits the humor out of this and as a result all of his dialogue seems to end with a question mark: “You mean there are no comedy clubs in Delhi?” “You mean I am supposed to work in this office?” “You mean…?”

It would have been funnier (and more accurate) if Brooks had done a send-up on how State Department officials really travel - in business class and in protected bullet proof convoys with minders who urge staff members not to talk with locals for any reason. Want to buy a salwar khameez outfit in the Lahore bazaar? A State Department assistant will bring the shop to you. The humor is not that American officials and representatives are clueless � it is that this administration’s policy often promotes a culture of isolation and fear of locals.

Brooks eventually hires a Hindu assistant named Maya (played with a lousy Indian accent by Sheetal Sheth). But before settling on her, Brooks interviews a litany of candidates, including a hijab wearing woman who is obsessed to know if Brooks is Jewish. In another scene, Brooks says “I can’t be dealing with Middle Easterns (sic) who will be bury me and throw stones on me.” His assistant interjects, “No, thats only in Libya.”

It’s this sort of “nudge nudge wink wink” humor that Brooks relies too heavily upon in his film. When he is setting up his comedy show, he requests a changing room. When denied, he says, “What, do you not have a changing room? Am I supposed to change on stage?” A Sikh man nods his head. When Brooks is finally given his dressing room, its a teepee style tent outside the theater. “Don’t you guys have bathrooms at least?”

In another scene, Maya’s Iranian boyfriend (who speaks oddly with a mixed Russian and New Jersey accent) says, “I was the funniest person in explosives camp.” I did not know whether to cringe at that line because of its blatant stereotyping or because of its awful writing.

That audiences would find this funny (as they did in the press screening I attended) is partly a reflection of how acceptable it has become to make jokes about Muslims or South Asians. (It is also, I suppose, a reflection of the degradation of films in America where comedians like Brooks can still elicit laughter and critical praise.)

The film hits a low when Brooks travels (illegally) to Pakistan for a comedy show near the border. Brooks performs at a camp-fire gathering of Muslim men who look like they have each done time in a cave in Tora Bora. The group is guarded by bodyguard because we are led to believe that comedy like that is simply too dangerous in Pakistan. Brooks casts himself as a vanguard figure who breaks through (literally and figuratively) to deliver comedy to the starved Muslim people. His character reminded me of Harrison Ford in “The Mosquito Coast” who goes to South America to give people ice because it will change their lives.

Indeed, Brooks should be applauded for his insistence on keeping the word “Muslim” in the film title. But the panache by which Brooks has presented himself as a trailblazer in making this film is troubling. Brooks comedy is nothing new, despite its admittedly clever title. His comedy is part of a long (and expanding) list of Hollywood movies that uses Muslims, South Asians, and Arabs either as a punchline or a villain.

I imagine that studio heads will gather on Monday morning to assess why the film failed at the box office. Perhaps Sony was right, a studio head may offer, and the word Muslim did in fact draw audiences away. But this could not be father from the truth.

As offensive and racist as Brooks’ humor often is, the most offensive part of his film is that it fails to deliver what it searches for: comedy.

Zahir Janmohamed, co-director of The Qunoot Foundation, wants 98 minutes of his life back. Read more of his writings at  Originally published at