Curb Your Enthusiasm--It's Not Very Funny
The movie opens with Senator Fred Thompson promising Albert Brooks a Medal of Freedom ("a big shiny one") if he can go to the Muslim World and figure out what makes them laugh. I assume the Senator has figured out that Pentagon-produced comic books didn't placate them. So they send Albert Brooks to New Dehli (I assume part of the joke is that the government doesn't realize that India is majority Hindu with a significat Muslim minority.) Anyway, Brooks schleps off to India, complaining to his State Department escorts that, gasp!, they have to ride in coach. He lands in Dehli and heads to his concrete walls micro-office to work--right next door to where the outsourcing has been outsourced to (Overhead: "Thank you for using Progressive," etc.) He interviews secretary candidates, some of whom ask him if he's Jewish to supposedly comic effect, and Albert is taken aback that Mel Gibson is some sort of cult hero hero. And then starts asking Muslims what they think is funny.
The jokes are this broad all the way through. It's like learning about Muslims by watching "Monk." There's some sort of weird paternal relationship Brooks develops with his sweet-hot secretary, whose Iranian boyfriend took an "explosives class." Brooks teachers her about sarcasm ("I'm the Henry Higgins of comedy!"), while fretting over his 500-page report for the government. The big set-piece, which Brooks thinks is brilliant, is a complete dud. Brooks gets an auditorium full of English-speaking Muslims and performs his best-known "Tonight Show" bits: The Ventriloquist and The Improv. The Muslims sit predictably stone-faced. This might be funny if the bits themselves weren't dated: Brooks doesn't seem to realize that the joke is on him. When the joke bombs with the Muslims, they bomb with us to. And speaking of the idiomatic use of "bomb," hijinks ensue when the Pakistani government wiretaps Brooks.
The problem is that Brooks mocks his b-level celebrity status, but that's also the problem here. This flimsy premise has no chance when you can't buy that anybody would care about Albert Brooks. He's too nice to be a menace. The jokes are too Catskills, and Brooks goes to lengths to show how much of a nice family man he is. Likewise, the humor is as broad as his contrast between himself and "The Muslims."
If this premise were to succeed, the joke would have to be on us. Here's the unenlightened American trying to "understand," but succeeds in pissing everybody off and making things worse. Brooks' version of this is overheated, Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course hijinks in dark rooms with ominous fake high government figures. Wouldn't this be a lot funnier, and more offensive, if the dopey American pissed off people on a personal level?
Brooks could have done this as a Christopher Guest-style mockumentary, or better yet, Brooks could have gone to the effort of making an actual documentary. There's comedy in the Muslim world--why not enlighten us and make us laugh by showing us what it actually is. If the jokes going to be on us, at least take the concept all the way.
That's why this movie should have been an episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Imagine Larry David in Pakistan, asking "Abdul" how he keeps his sheet so white: "I'm asking an honest question here! That must be hard with all this sand!" Larry David in a New Dehli mosque, doing something as offensive as renting a living nativity scene for Christmas, and then asking David is he's ever done Mary. Larry asking Pakistanis why his friend Omar wears a bowtie. Larry could extoll the virtues of the burqa because it takes his wife forever to get ready. Stuff like that. Take it over the top--characature the image of the Spoiled American to gain insight into why the hate us. Hell, you might even buy that the producer of "Seinfeld" might get such an assignment from the government--I mean, even Republicans like "Seinfeld," right? Albert Brooks makes a joke about going to Kashmir to look for a sweater. Larry David would spark nuclear conflict. I buy that.