Albert Brooks makes an unlikely but inspired surrogate for the United States in Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World, a sly satire of America's myopia and naïveté regarding the complexities of the non-Western world. In a mock-heroic quest that echoes similarly missions in Lost In America and Real Life, Brooks sets out to bridge the cultural divide between America and the Muslim world, but never manages to get beyond his own inflated ego.
Once again playing himself, Brooks is dispatched on a government mission to travel to Pakistan and India and write a 500-page report on what makes Muslims laugh. With the possibility of a medal dangled tantalizingly in front of him, Brooks decides to give his material the ultimate road test by returning to stand-up in India. His strategy is to try to uncover the secrets of the Muslim funny bone by seeing which of his old stand-up bits still kill onstage, a plan that reduces his goodwill mission to an elaborate focus-group presentation. The radiant Sheetal Sheth co-stars as Brooks' vivacious, eager assistant in a subplot that proves that it's possible to do damn near everything wrong and still somehow make a meaningful human connection.
Like The Aristocrats, Looking succeeds smashingly both as a comedy and as a savvy deconstruction of comedy. It's equally concerned with getting laughs and exploring how culture and language affect the way people process humor. So lowbrow gags about giggling Pakistani pothead comics and the outsourcing of telephone jobs to India happily co-exist with deadpan satire and brainy meta-bits that recall the postmodern satire of Brooks' early stand-up career. What Brooks' doppelgänger seems to be seeking isn't the objective truth about an alien culture, but an enchanted mirror to tell him he's the fairest and funniest of them all. He expects to be greeted in the Muslim world—if not with candy and flowers, then at least with chuckles and guffaws. He's largely disappointed. Audiences won't be.