"Too inside," a studio executive once reportedly said when passing on Albert Brooks' screenplay for The Muse. Harsh, maybe, but the judgment could fit any Brooks picture. Since 1979, when he made his writer-director debut with Real Life, and through such offbeat delights as Defending Your Life, Mother, and Modern Romance, Brooks has made movies that are too inside—inside the clique of A-list Hollywood cool kids (Martie, Rob, Penny), for whom Brooks likes to play the part of the nebbishy tag-along; inside the loving self-gaze of the baby boomers; and most of all, way too inside the interior of Brooks' own skull, a hall of neurotic mirrors that Brooks uses to cut and recut his own comic persona. As with any of the greats—Woody Allen and Bob Hope come first to mind—Albert Brooks' sole stock-in-trade is "Albert Brooks," a character that after a lifetime of sweat equity he can slip on and off as casually as a pair of old loafers. Brooks has so refined this act—that of the spoiled, querulous middle-aged Pantaloon— that he's funny even when he exhales, lets his torso sag. If he speaks, it's a bonus. The intonation, that falling defeatist cadence, implies the weight of the whole world—or, at least, too few Lifetime Achievement Awards. His has always been the utter clarity of the totally depressed.
How funny Brooks can be, even when the material is hopeless, is abundantly on display in Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World. The movie starts off a genial self-sendup of the classic Brooks variety: Brooks plays "Albert Brooks," a fiftysomething actor whose career, by the distorted standards of Hollywood, is only modestly successful. While temporarily out of work, Brooks receives an invitation from the State Department to act as an emissary of the U.S. Government, open a soft front in the war on terror, and figure out what makes the Muslims of India and Pakistan laugh. For the first half of Looking for Comedy, Brooks' hangdog demeanor performs reliably, and there are plenty of solid laughs. Oh, what Brooks can still do with a quizzical tilt of the head, as when he reacts to a flunky intoning, "The president, as you know, has a pretty darn good sense of humor." Or with a lilt of the voice, as when he delivers the otherwise funny-as-a-poke-in-the-eye, "Your mother thinks a Muslim is a fabric." But, oh, this premise. It is every bit the albatross it sounds. As we leave behind the little cocoon of L.A. comfort jokes—Brooks is too Jewish for Penny Marshall's Harvey remake, his wife is bankrupting him on eBay—and journey to India, it begins to feels as if we, not "Albert Brooks," have been grimly tasked by a federal bureaucrat.
Brooks flies (can you believe, coach!) to New Delhi, fails to get picked up at the airport, and grudgingly accepts a fleabag for an office. Greeting each indignity with a kvetchy sense of showbiz entitlement, he's being set before us as the personification of American cultural cluelessness. For a comedian to act as living proxy for his own country's worst failings—is this humility or vanity? Brooks could have gotten away with anything had the movie only stayed funny, but after a delicious windup, the clash of civilizations is presented without much comic brio at all. In the movie's one big set piece, Brooks performs his old stand-up material to an audience of uncomprehending Muslims, and we're treated to the predictable symphony of tone-deafness. Brooks—excuse me, "Brooks"—doesn't seem to get that no frame of cultural reference will render his humor a mystery to a foreign audience. But Brooks—and here I do mean Brooks—has overestimated how edifying it is for us to watch him bomb. In a weak stab at regenerating the plot, Brooks sneaks across the border for a secret meeting with a group of Pakistani comedians. A trifling B-plot with Brooks' assistant, played by the fetching and vigorously alert Sheetal Sheth, gets thrown in for good measure.
Brooks has always made some people uneasy. Through a movie as padded as this one—an entire scene is devoted to securing a porta-potty—the audience is given plenty of time to reflect on why. At the simplest level, he's anxious, and that makes us anxious. But a clue to the nature of Brooks' oddity comes from the one role that really connected him to a wider audience, as Aaron Altman in Broadcast News. Surely it must gall Brooks that after tinkering with his comic persona for decades, it was captured best in a movie he didn't write or direct. How did that happen? In Broadcast News Altman embodied the widely held suspicion that the world esteems the wrong things. It doesn't give a fig about self-knowledge, friendship, or ordinary human decency. But Brooks' satire has always turned the screw one rotation further. He wants to hazard the darker suggestion that self-pity is a prison—in his instance, totally out of proportion to the genuine privileges he enjoys as a midlevel film star. Throughout Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, there are shots reminiscent of Mira Nair, of boulevards densely packed with people and livestock. All this, to spoof a petty little Hollywood ego? Too inside.