LOOKING FOR COMEDY IN THE MUSLIM WORLD
starring Albert Brooks, John Carroll Lynch, Sheetal Sheth, Fred Dalton Thompson
written and directed by Albert Brooks
WHY WE FIGHT
directed by Eugene Jarecki
by Walter Chaw The most frustrating thing about Albert Brooks's crushingly boring, infuriatingly unfunny Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (hereafter Comedy) is the possibility that such was the intention all along. 'Lost in Arabia' (well, India and Pakistan--let's not get crazy, here) finds Brooks doing a high-wire act with post-modernism--the same one he's been doing his whole career, as it happens. At some point, though, it's fair to wonder how long you can push self-awareness before it finally flies apart in a storm of narcissistic deconstruction. Mull over, if you will, a moment where Brooks (as Brooks) recreates one of his classic gags--involving the world's most ironically-tragic ventriloquist--in the middle of an interminable stand-up routine staged in a New Delhi auditorium, closing his act with the dummy (the wooden one) drinking a glass of water. It's Brooks, and Brooks's film, in microcosm: a man who returns the term "mortification" to ritual and religion while being incapable of subsuming the belief that he's still the smartest guy in the room. The trick of Comedy is that in making a movie that isn't very funny about a man who isn't very funny in the middle of a gulf of cultural misunderstanding that's especially not very funny, Brooks hopes to draw a corollary between how the troubles of the world boil down to everybody's inability to communicate. As revelations go, it's not earth-shattering. Guess it goes without saying that it's also not worth the effort to get there.
Comedy opens with Penny Marshall in a casting session for her hopefully-fictional remake of Harvey (not that Harvey couldn't stand to be remade--what's scary is the thought that Marshall might still have a directing career), blasting Brooks's remake of The In-Laws just prior to Brooks showing up for an obligatory cup-of-coffee and a thank-you-very-much. It establishes the premise of the film (an aging, unpopular Jewish comic really needs a job) as well as that Brooks is possibly trying to make another clever point regarding his own alleged inadequacy by shooting the picture like a blind longshoreman, dropping boom mikes into the frame and lighting everything in a flat, "documentary" style. Once Marshall rejects Brooks for a role in a remake because he starred in a remake she doesn't like, it all gets so thuddingly, obviously, pleased with its wooden intellectualism that it could've been written by John Kerry. I do understand nuance and the kind of social satire that allowed Brooks's Lost in America to soar--and I also understand that Comedy is about as nuanced as a barium enema.
Summoned to Washington DC and given an assignment to infiltrate India and Pakistan to figure out what tickles the Muslim funny bone, Brooks complains about his airplane ride, his office, his handlers, and the impossibility of his ever producing a five-hundred page report for the State Department. The United States' bureaucracy is on the chopping block initially and we laugh good-naturedly at an old joke told again (if not particularly well), while a call-centre Mecca where dozens of Indians answer questions on behalf of American corporations threatens to be interesting. But then the general shittiness of India is brought into the crosshairs, and the laughter, without enough of a connection linking globalization to said shittiness, turns ugly. Brooks's bad time stops being a result of his State Dept. goons and starts being a result of the Third World. It could be that Brooks is illustrating how "Brooks" can only see the troubles of the world through the prism of his own deadly inconsequence in the public eye (certainly this is inferred when a spy overhears him going on about a bomb--referring to his show, naturally), but ultimately Comedy doesn't have any identity more dominant than this exhausting, plangent, pathetic vanity piece for a guy who once turned self-immolation into an art--and is now trying to stay current by turning it into a screed.
The way that Eugene Jarecki's Why We Fight (winner of the Grand Jury Prize at last year's Sundance Film Festival) fails isn't entirely different in that although it's a neo-Errol Morris montage documentary rather than a "faux-documentary," it likewise stumbles into its own navel and fatally loses its way. The logical companion piece to Jarecki's more--here's that word again--nuanced documentary The Trials of Henry Kissinger, Why We Fight examines America's hopelessly incestuous military/industrial complex (after all, as retired air force colonel Karen Kwiatkowski offers, "We elected a defense contractor as vice-president") through the veil of misinformation that led to our involvement in trying to quell a costly insurgency in the Middle East.
Featuring, initially, a nice mix of talking heads--including an outspoken John McCain--in addition to infuriating archival footage of the powers that be contradicting themselves habitually (maybe pathologically), the picture eventually leans too far on certified wacko Gore Vidal and the heartbreaking testimony of Vietnam Vet and ex-cop Wilton Sekzer, who lost a son in the fall of the WTC. Both the man's grief and the film itself start out affecting and end up Strangelove-ian, with Sekzer relishing his boy's name gracing a bomb dropped on a clearly not-responsible country and the film similarly indulging in dropping its own bombs on a hapless administration. Perhaps the very victim of outrage fatigue, I feel on the one hand glad that Why We Fight takes a strong stand from a political party that hasn't exhibited a backbone since before it was too late--but on the other, I can't help but be bugged by propaganda, no matter its point-of-view. Neither Comedy nor Why We Fight deals with the act of discovery, self or otherwise, instead sticking to the process of madly justifying conclusions (personal, popular, or pointless) with increasingly Byzantine tactics. Originally published: January 20, 2006.