Brooks Comedy expedition returns empty-handed

Over the course of three decades of stand-up comedy, short films and features, Albert Brooks has etched a West Coast version of the Jewish intellectual.

Sun-soaked in a blend of L.A. materialism and existentialism, the typical Brooks character is less neurotic and more trusting than his East Coast cousin. He’s self-deprecating rather than self-obsessed, occasionally perturbed but never bitter, all the while letting it be known that he’s the smartest person in the room.

That endearing persona is front and center in the actor-writer-director’s latest, “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World.” But there’s nothing else on offer in this stunningly slight movie that finds Brooks coasting on his laconic charm.

“Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World” opens Friday, Jan. 20 throughout the Bay Area.

It’s all downhill after the title, which is the cleverest bit. Alas, it turns out to be false advertising on two counts.

It conjures all sorts of hilarious possibilities stemming from a Jewish comedian’s visit to Egypt, Saudi Arabia or any other Arab country. But any and all expectations evaporate in the first 10 minutes, when Brooks presents a ludicrous premise in the most tepid manner imaginable.

With his career temporarily stalled and no gigs in the offing, Brooks accepts a State Department assignment to go to India and Pakistan and write a 500-page report on what makes Muslims laugh. The “intelligence” he gathers on the mission will be used to devise a new campaign to give America a kinder, gentler image abroad, to reduce misunderstandings and defuse tensions in the post-9/11 world.

Brooks is as suitable for the job as any comedian, except for one small problem. Based on the evidence here, it’s clear he no longer has a grasp of what’s funny to Americans. So how is he going to figure out what generates guffaws in a foreign country?

He’s assisted by a pair of colorless State Department operatives and an enthusiastic translator-stenographer he hires in Delhi. None are given an interesting personality quirk or a juicy line of dialogue, let alone a memorable scene.

Brooks can’t be accused, though, of shortchanging his supporting cast while hogging the best lines. There aren’t any best lines, and only a few decent ones.

The plot, such as it is, turns on Brooks’ realization that man-on-the-street interviews are an inefficient way to conduct research. And India doesn’t have comedy clubs, where he could glean knowledge through observation.

So Brooks decides to put on his own show, performing an assortment of jokes, riddles, improvisation and ventriloquism. He’ll discover what gets laughs, and he’ll have ample material to fill out his report.

The comedy concert goes on and on, comprising the movie’s centerpiece. Fans of Brooks’ stand-up shouldn’t take that as a selling point, for the act is so unrelentingly tedious that it sinks the film.

“Looking for Comedy” feels like a half-baked vanity project but, oddly, it’s not irritating so much as misguided. Brooks’ ever-changing wardrobe of spiffy native outfits, for example, isn’t intended to spark laughter by mocking Indian culture but to generate smiles at Brooks’ expense from the cross-culture incongruity. (It doesn’t, alas.)

Brooks has zero visual flair as a director, and no budget here to mask his shortcomings. Yet the movie is always watchable, since we keep waiting for his unmistakable intelligence to manifest itself through a sneaky aside or off-kilter insight.

The title “Waiting for Albert” lacks the pizzazz of “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World,” but at least it would have had the virtue of accuracy.

“Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World” opens Jan. 20 at the Embarcadero Center and CineArts at Empire, the Grand Lake, Shattuck and Orinda in the East Bay, the Regency in San Rafael, the Aquarius in Palo Alto, and the Camera 7 and CineArts at Santana Row in San Jose.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.