Albert Brooks has always spun gold from self-absorption and gulfs of misunderstanding. He's dissected a family that submits to reality TV (Real Life), a nation engulfed in the "Me" decade (Lost in America), a man who can't believe he's dead (Defending Your Life), and the dysfunctional relationships of a couple in desperate need of therapy (Modern Romance), a mother and son (Mother) and a screenwriter and his a diva-like muse (The Muse). In Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, writer-director Brooks brushes off the selfish-schnook version of himself to satirize international relations, threatened by outsized American self-interest.
After a funny prelude mocking Hollywood and Brooks' own career, senator-turned-actor Fred Dalton Thompson recruits the Brooks character (called, as in Real Life, Albert Brooks) to take on the diplomatic task of producing a 500-page report on the Muslim sense of humor. With cultural understanding, reasons, Thompson, the odds for peace will improve. Flush with the promise of a Medal of Freedom for his efforts, Brooks ships off—first to India and then to Pakistan—in search of "the funny."
But Finding Nemo notwithstanding, the neurotic Brooks makes a clumsy ambassador. His first words on the streets of New Delhi are "It's a nightmare here," and it's downhill as the Brooks character fruitlessly interviews passers-by. Helped by his eager assistant Maya (Sheetal Sheth) and hindered by two reckless U.S. government aides (Jon Tenney and John Carroll Lynch), Brooks organizes shows of his own material to see what audiences like. That his material bombs says more about "Brooks" than his audience. Along the way, Brooks raises the suspicion of the Indian Parliament, and the interest of Al-Jazeera and some well-fortified Pakistani comedians.
The title would seem to imply that writer-director Brooks will reach a conclusion, but the joke's on us as much as it is on the self-mocking comedian, since he learns only that stupid pet tricks, Polish jokes, and the Three Stooges are universal. Audiences may be disappointed that Brooks doesn't fully exploit the possibilities of his premise (partly by setting the film in predominantly Hindu territory). Though he feints interest in Maya and her troubled boyfriend, Brooks sticks to what he knows: American self-absorption.
Like Brooks' other latter-day films, this one is ticklish but ultimately slight. Still, he ends the film on the appropriately subversive note that, in our arrogance, we understand little and typically cause trouble without even trying. As Brooks tells his screen daughter, "It's a cruel world, honey."