Albert Brooks, the actor, is not exactly setting the world on fire with his performances in The In-Laws and Finding Nemo (as the voice of the lead fish). That is why he gets very excited when he gets a chance to talk with director Penny Marshall (Big) who is looking for another Jimmy Stewart for a new version of Harvey. The interview is very short but not sweet. Brooks returns home to find his wife shopping on EBay again, and he playfully tells her that he is going to have to order a Parental Consent device for her computer.
Then he opens a letter from the government asking him to fly to Washington. At the State Department, he is invited to be part of a new initiative designed to help Americans better understand Muslims. The committee led by actor and politician Fred Dalton Thompson wants him to spend a month in India and Pakistan finding out what makes Muslims laugh. He is to write a report of no less than 500 pages. One of the committee members laughs and says he shouldn't worry about the length since no one will read it. Still Brooks, who doesn't do well with writing long, is apprehensive about the assignment until Thompson says that he could earn the Medal of Freedom for his service. The actor, who is both needy and greedy, accepts the job.
On the flight to New Dehli, Brooks, Stuart (John Carrol Lynch), and Mark (Jon Tenney), the State Department officials working with him, sit in coach rather than First Class due to a bureaucratic mix-up. He is not a happy camper. In New Delhi his office is small and sad in a decrepit building. Most of the other offices contain phone banks for customer service jobs outsourced from the U.S. As he walks by one room, he hears one Indian answer, "William Morris Agency" and another "the White House."
After struggling to find an Indian assistant among a group of applicants who cannot type, Brooks hires Maya (Sheetal Sheth), a pretty and enthusiastic young woman who is a fast typist and stenographer. Only problem is, she does not understand sarcasm, which is the way Brooks handles all of the disappointments that come his way.
On the street, the actor does some interviews with Indians to find out what they find funny. A few refuse to answer since he is American and others just don't have the time or the inclination to respond. Given the fact that he only has a month, Brooks comes up with the idea of putting on "The Big Show," a comedy concert in which he can try out all kinds of routines to see which ones make Muslims laugh. Still nervous about the 500 page report, he puts Maya to work on a history of India to pad it out. Meanwhile, they visit a laughing Yoga club and are surprised by the good cheer. They pass out leaflets to everyone there.
When the big evening arrives, Brooks is forced to dress and get prepared in a tipi outside the hall. Then since there is no one to introduce him, his disguises his voice and does it himself from the wings. The rest of the evening is a similar disaster. At first he thinks the audience doesn't understand English when they don't laugh at his ventriloquist number with a dummy and his improvisation skits. Instead of admitting he's bombed, Brooks blames the fiasco on the fact that the lights weren't dimmed and predicts that a show later in the evening would be better.
Writer and director Albert Brooks has made a bold comedy that lampoons this American comedian as he tries to make Muslims laugh. It is funny to watch him try so hard to go native with several outrageous outfits. Best of all, the humor here is not against foreigners. Perhaps comedy is not such a bad piece of foreign policy when it points out the flaws and foibles which are part and parcel of the human condition all over the world.
The last third of the movie deals with Brooks sneaking across the border into Pakistan for a secret meeting with aspiring comedians and then a surprise get-together with executives at the Aljazerra Arab television who offer him a sitcom. Brooks is a hoot as the self-absorbed and whining American who manages to fuel the flames of enmity between India and Pakistan just by his mysterious presence in the country and his unconventional meetings.
Those who love Albert Brooks will be happy to see him in such good form in Looking for Comedy in a Muslim World.
Special DVD features include some additional scenes.