Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World: Albert Brooks’ New Film Fails


At least, Oakley wears his sunglasses outside.
When I went to see Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World this weekend at a Regal Cinemas event hosted by the Center for American Progress, actor and director Albert Brooks wore his sunglasses in the theatre.
I really wanted to like this film. I tried hard. The peer pressure was intense.
Seated around me were very luminescent luminaries and some semi-luminescent ones. Some were just normal folks out to watch the flick for free.
Paul Begala was there. John Kerry and former Senator Fred Thompson, who also appears in the movie, sat a couple of rows in front me. David Brock seemed to enjoy it, though I’m not sure he really did. I just heard him say that he liked it but it could have been just what he needed to say to get out of the room. John Podesta was the host. Even Grover Norquist was there.
I’ve hosted Washington, D.C. film premieres in the past for the policy crowd — for Thirteen, Kinsey, In America, and Gunner Palace — but I always insist on seeing the film before I screen it. I don’t require that the film necessarily be “great”, but I feel I need to be able to pitch it to ‘my audience’ in a way that permits honest discussion and debate about the respective policy issues raised.
After Thirteen, which starred Holly Hunter and was directed by Catherine Hardwicke, the Economist devoted a full “Lexington Page” to the event and the complicated family and teenage issues.
The way Looking for Comedy was presented, it sort of constrained honest discussion rather than opened it up. However, Brooks did say that the film got more intense support when he showed it in Dubai.
But with all due respect to Albert Brooks and the Center for American Progress, this film — which I think many progressives will find themselves trying to like — is a counterproductive movie.
Brooks told us that he made this film about looking for comedy and humor in the Muslim world to try and make the case that movies need to start addressing (again) the world we find ourselves in today. He said that the leading films of the year like Brokeback Mountain, Goodnight and Good Luck, Capote, and others were period pieces set in the past. He said that the complexity of our times was making us look back — rather than to the present, or even the future.
Brooks has a point.
However, without giving away anything I probably shouldn’t about the film — the two “types” of humor that Brooks depicts working in the Muslim world are “stupid pet tricks” and “Jewish jokes.” In one particularly bizarre seen, Al Jazeera tries to recruit Brooks for a new comedy sitcom that it is appearing for its new (fictional) Al Jazeera E Channel called “That Darn Jew.”
I walked out of the theatre near a group of Muslims who were in the audience — and in barely audible whispers and quiet commentary — they were furious with the film.
What’s odd is the premise of the film. I happened to attend a “Christmas Party” that was also a farewell luncheon hosted by the London Al Jazeera office when I was last in the U.K. — and hung out with various staff from Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Syria, Jordan and other places, and their humor was way better than mine — and this movie’s (. . .and Al Brooks’ — at least in this film).
I don’t really like coming down hard on this movie as I generally like Brooks, and I have been involved in the past with movies that were controversial and not considered to be great successes either. I was the “talk show host” and technical advisor on the Sean Connery/Wesley Snipes film Rising Sun — but that’s a topic for another year.
But the way to reach the Muslim world, or to get Americans to break through the tension that they may feel about our problems there, is to get beyond the caricatures of bad Jewish jokes and silly animal tricks.
There’s very rich humor in the Middle East. I showed this recently when I hosted Yosri Fouda of Al Jazeera at the New America Foundation. Not only was he a thoughtful and articulate observer and commentator about the Muslim world and terrorism issues, but he can be hilarious.
John Kerry, Paul Begala and the rest all looked quite satisfied with the film, but as anything in Washington or Hollywood, appearances can be deceiving.
And what really bothered me is that the film could have been great and might have been a vehicle that “humanized” the Middle East and helped Americans gain more insight into the “lighter” side of Muslim life.
— Steve Clemons