Saturday, January 21, 2006

Review: Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World

We were looking forward to seeing this; Brooks' usually reliable self-deprecating humor seemed to be a good risk for our movie dollars to take a break during the first hectic week of classes. It didn't help that just before the film started the otherwise empty theatre suddenly livened up with, as it turned out, a guy who laughed uproariously at everything Brooks said for the first part of the film and a couple who left behind a huge pile of detritus from their loud snacking during the film, clearly banking on the fact that someone else would clean up after them. Pigs.

The film starts out with a funny scene, Brooks meeting with a clearly unimpressed Penny Marshall to audition for the Stewart role in a remake of Harvey. A discouraged Brooks returns home to find his eBay-addicted wife greeting him with a letter from the State Department -- after some initial fears about what it might be, of course it turns out to be an invitation to spearhead a foray into India and Pakistan to, well, you can guess from the title. Brooks' nebbish (ironically named Albert Brooks, too) initially dreads the very idea -- particularly the 500 page report -- but gets persuaded by the thoughts of a Freedom medal ("the good one").

Of course, the aim of this is to show the self-involved ego-centrism of Americans with regard to the Muslim world. There is a lot of humor in Brooks' misadventures as he finds the cushy life to which he is accustomed harder to obtain and himself at sea among the plethora of languages and cultures of India. Unfortunately, he and the film never get beyond that. When one of his State Dept adjuncts reminds him of Lenny Bruce's edict, "Know your audience," you hope -- as Gene noted -- that the film will finally turn around, but it doesn't.

The film makes all the same errors that Brooks' clueless comedian does: using the beauty of India as a kind of colorful backdrop, but showing no interest beyond the superficial decoration. Just as Brooks' character missed the Taj Mahal because he's too busy obsessing about his own impending failure (the running joke about progress on the 500 pages report provides a slim but chuckle-worthy touchstone), the film fails to engage with the South Asian world in any significant way. The voice of India is reduced to the local assistant, Maya, who seems to have been chosen in large part because of her European looks and Keane eyes. The tantalising implications of her name (and her relationship with her Iranian boyfriend) never develop. Similarly, the end credits don't even cite the performers of the Indian music, only the two or three Western songs. Just as Brooks' character returns home no wiser (although perhaps leaving an international incident in his wake), the film too seems to shrug its metaphorical shoulders and leave the question unknowable and the people, presumably, inscrutable. In the end, I'm not sure what Brooks thought the film would do -- but I do know it didn't do it, unless he really did intend to leave the audience with a vague sense of disappointment and dissatisfaction. It is possible...


eirwenes said...

So did it smack of orientalism? Or was it just a big disappointment?

C. Margery Kempe said...

I don't even think there was enough attention paid to the culture to create a sense of orientalism. It was so entirely dismissive that, although I am tempted to want to believe that this was in fact the point, there was no recognition of that omission, so I can't really believe the intention was there. So, yeah -- a big disappointment.