I'm on vacation all this week. So it's nothing but beer bongs and Jell-O shots down at Señor Frog's for me from now until Monday morning. As a snookered man once said, "Party! Party! Party!" But I promised myself at the beginning of this project that I'd deliver an uninterrupted string of Floptastic Case Files, so I've decided to use my week off to champion some overlooked gems from one of my favorite filmmakers, Mr. Albert Brooks.
Incidentally, Brooks is also one of my friend and colleague Scott Tobias' heroes. Before he started at the Onion, Scott was hard at work on a Masters thesis on Albert Brooks. So I'm a little worried that Scott will be so horrified by this column that he'll magically appear alongside Albert Brooks at Señor Frog's a la Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall and have Brooks grouse "You know nothing of my work. How you ever got to be the Head Writer of anything is amazing."
In these entries I've been trying to find a nice balance between Schadenfreude and advocacy, withering comic critiques and sober appreciations. So after subjecting myself and my readership to the likes of Georgia Rule, The Cat In The Hat, The Island Of Dr. Moreau, Hudson Hawk, and Battlefield Earth I figured it would be a refreshing change of pace to write about films that do not transparently suck: 2005's little-loved Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World and 1993's even littler-loved The Scout.
In what only sounds unmistakably like apocryphal show-business lore, Brooks was born Albert Lawrence Einstein to a radio comedian (Harry Parke) who literally died onstage of a heart attack at a Friar's Club Roast of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, immediately after having delivered a routine that by all accounts absolutely killed. From such auspicious beginnings sprung a comic mind of restless intelligence and conceptual genius.
Alongside Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman, Brooks specialized in a brainy, ironic form of post-modern stand-up that took apart the base components of comedy and reassembled them in sly, revelatory ways. Albert Brooks' deconstructionist genius continued apace with his short films for Saturday Night Live, which quickly emerged as the most consistently brilliant element of the show's legendary first season.
As a filmmaker, Brooks can't approach a genre without tearing it apart and reinventing it in his own dyspeptic image, from the fake documentary (1979's Real Life, as definitive and revolutionary a mockumentary as This Is Spinal Tap), the romantic comedy (1981's Modern Romance), the road movie (Lost In America), the afterlife comedy (1992's Defending Your Life), and the family comedy (1996's Mother),
Then came 1999's The Muse, the first film Brooks ever made that didn't feel absolutely essential. Brooks exists on a higher evolutionary plane than his peers so fans understandably expect greatness with each film and The Muse, while funny in parts, felt familiar, predictable, and pretty egregiously non-great.
Of course, when you only direct two or three movies a decade pretty much every movie you make qualifies as a comeback film. So expectations were sky-high for Brooks' follow-up, 2005's Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World. After playing it safe with The Muse, it looked like Brooks was once again taking chances and flirting with danger, not unlike Tori Spelling in the 1996 television movie Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?. Sony Picture Classics' decision to drop the film only added to the impression that after the tepid Hollywood satire of The Muse, Brooks was once again too hot to handle and too cold to hold.
Then the film came out and failed to engender even the faintest ripple of outrage. Brooks' satire inspired something far more deadly and ominous than controversy: widespread indifference. The reviews were mixed but largely negative and the box-office negligible. In retrospect, Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World promised audiences a much edgier film than it delivered. In that respect, the film's title constitutes a subversive act of misdirection. It set audiences up for a withering spoof of our post 9/11 religious and cultural order, then delivered a sneaky satire of American myopia and self-absorption. Leave it to Brooks to travel halfway around the world to make a satire with Muslim World in its title whose most trenchant digs are at the expense of himself and his country.
Muslim begins more or less where The Muse left off. Brooks, once again starring as himself in a self-deprecating role, comes in to audition for a Harvey remake for an aggressively unenthused Penny Marshall, who expresses horror and disgust that anyone would remake The In-Laws. "Ours at least begs to be remade," she bitches optimistically before cavalierly dismissing Brooks out of hand with a fuzzy vow to rewatch The In-Laws to determine whether Brooks is, in fact, the new James Stewart they're looking for. It's a glib, easy gag but it also fits into the film's sneaky worldview: if James Stewart's noble everyman circa Mr. Smith Goes To Washington represents our national ideal in its purest form, then the sly self-parody of Brooks' persona at the heart of the film represents how we actually are: soft, rich, hopelessly narcissistic, well-intentioned but more than a little clueless, especially when it comes to non-English-speaking parts of the globe.
Brooks' show-business career is going nowhere, so his curiosity is piqued when politician-turned-actor-turned-politician Fred Dalton Thompson commissions him to travel to India and Pakistan, at the behest of the U.S. Government, to write a 500-page report on what makes Muslims laugh. Brooks is told he should feel free to pad his reports with charts "but not too many charts."
With visions of a Presidential Medal of Freedom and/or Nobel Prize dancing merrily in his head, Brooks travels to the Far East accompanied by two State Department employees: Jon Tenney, a womanizer who liked parts of Lost In America but found the ending "tacked on," and John Carroll Lynch, a Brooks fan shocked to find out Brooks doesn't like talking about other comedians. After being peppered with questions from Lynch about the relative hilarity of Chris Rock, Conan O'Brien, and "that guy from King Of Queens," Brooks finally snaps and admits that comedians hate talking about other comedians because all they really want to talk about is themselves. Again the gag serves the satire, since Muslim is about a United States less interested in honest cultural communication than in reaffirming its own awesomeness, a country less interested in gaining a window into Muslim culture than in gazing adoringly into a magic mirror that tells us we're the fairest, most freedom-loving maiden of them all.
With the help of a radiant local assistant (Sheetal Sheth) whose boundless enthusiasm proves infectious, Brooks sets about interviewing Indians about what they find amusing. When he fails to secure answers more revealing than "animals acting like people," he decides to throw a big stand-up comedy concert where he'll try to ascertain the comedy tastes of the Muslim world by which of his mothballed old routines they respond to, effectively transforming the people of India into a giant focus group.
Muslim World's central comic set pieces find Brooks bombing in front of an Indian audience that understands all his cultural references, but finds them brutally unfunny all the same, then killing with the exact same material during a daring nighttime gig in Pakistan of dubious legality where he performs in front of aspiring stand-up comedians stoned into a state of delirious, oblivious laughter.
Brooks' nighttime rendezvous in Pakistan attracts the attention of Indian officials who suspect that the curious stranger best known for playing a fish in a cartoon might be a spy ferreting out state secrets. In a plot thread that edges into Duck Soup and Dr. Strangelove territory, Brooks' misadventures in cultural diplomacy exacerbate Indian-Pakistani tensions and threaten to incite a full-on nuclear war. In an end crawl, it's revealed that the U.S. government shut down the cultural outreach program that sent Brooks overseas in favor of a miraculous super-bomber that can deploy its entire payload from inside a hangar. Now that's diplomacy every American can understand.
Though it takes knowing digs at outsourcing (Brooks regularly passes an Indian call center serving everyone from the White House to the William Morris Agency), terrorism (Sheth's jealous boyfriend boasts of being the funniest man at school and at explosives training), and Al-Jazeera (Brooks is asked to consider a lead role in a sitcom about a Jewish-American in an all-Muslim apartment complex called That Darn Jew), most of the satire here is directed firmly at Brooks and his countrymen's direction. Brooks makes himself the butt of almost every joke, which depending on your perspective constitutes either refreshing cultural sensitivity or utter satirical cowardice. So while Muslim World might feel minor, it actually represents a big symbolic step in Brooks' career. In Brooks' first film, 1979's Real Life, Brooks threatens to destroy an entire family for his art/ego. Here he threatens to destroy an entire region of the world. Now that's progress.
In Brooks' stealthy satire, a representative of the United States government travels halfway around the world trying to understand and aid a foreign, inscrutable people, makes a giant mess of things through ignorance and naïveté, then proclaims himself a hero who has made the world a better place through his noble sacrifice. Sound familiar?
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success