Tuesday, August 29, 2006


Some very worthwhile new releases on DVD today, including The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection Volume 10 (with some of the best episodes ever) and the final, brief season of Arrested Development. But what I want to rant about right now is another of today's new releases, Albert Brooks' Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World. More specifically, the critical reaction to it.

Let's be clear: Albert Brooks is a comedy god. He was a brilliant, innovative stand-up comedian in the late sixties and early seventies, and parlayed his reputation into a gig making short films for the first season of Saturday Night Live. Most of these featured Brooks playing an annoyingly exaggerated version of himself, a whiny, neurotic showbiz also-ran who thinks he's entitled to special priveleges in life simply because he's a celebrity.

He played the same type in his debut feature, 1979's remarkably prescient Real Life, as a shifty documentary filmmaker trying to capture the lives of "ordinary" Americans, but willing to burn down their house to provide a climax to his film. He hit his stride with 1981's Modern Romance and 1985's Lost In America, which are simply two of the greatest comedies ever made. While very funny, the laughs in these movies often stick in the throat, as Brooks explores some of the most appalling aspects of human behavior.

None of these movies were exactly smash hits, but they all found favor with critics, who understood exactly that Brooks was going for uneasy laughter, not big yucks, and appreciated any director interested in exploring the human condition.

Well. How times have changed. Earlier this year, when Brooks released Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World, he was greeted with almost universally withering comments from the critical community. Fine, if they simply thought Brooks wasn't up to his usual standards, or simply don't care for his brand of comedy. But in this case, they mostly didn't even see what was right before them.

This time around, Brooks plays a moderately successful comedian and filmmaker named, uh, Albert Brooks, who accepts an assignment from the state department: in order to understand how the Muslim community views the U.S., we should try to understand their culture. And what better way to understand then do determine what makes them laugh?

Brooks travels to India, flags down Muslims on the street and tells them jokes. (Mostly, they don't laugh.) He books an auditorium and does a ventriliquist routine. Mostly he wanders around fretting about a report he's supposed to write for the government, and tries to foist the assignment off on his assistant.

The point couldn't be more obvious: Brooks is the totally self-absorbed Ugly American, ostensibly there to work with the Muslim community but unable to care about anything other than his own petty problems. Kind of like, I don't know, a certain occupying superpower in a certain Muslim nation.

Amazingly, most critics completely missed this, wondering instead why Brooks had to play such a jerk. Well, because that's the whole point. It's very rare to find newspaper critics these days with any knowledge of film history, but in this case, they seemed astonishingly blind to world events, as well. (This was true even in such papers as The Washington Post, where you might expect staffers to be well-informed.) Most critics these days understand little beyond a kind of "It's great!" or "It stinks!" mentality, fine for reviewing blockbusters but worthless when it comes to trying to cover work of real ambition.

A shame, because Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World is a big-hearted comedy that is, incidentally, very funny. It was never going to be a smash hit, but with the critical support it deserved, it might at least have become a cult item. Maybe on DVD...