IN the days after the calamitous 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, there was a brief flurry of soul-searching in Hollywood, focusing in part on how much of a role our movies played in stirring Muslim rage against America. As innumerable cultural historians have discovered, many devout Muslims are horrified by the sexual innuendo and crass materialism in Hollywood films and music videos, not to mention Vanity Fair, whose salacious cover spread this month of Paris Hilton pretty much says it all when it comes to celebrating even the tawdriest members of our celebrity culture.
Judging from the films in the multiplexes this summer, the soul-searching in show business lasted about as long as Britney Spears' first marriage. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, an overwhelming majority of respondents in Middle Eastern countries were opposed to the spread of American ideas and customs. I seriously doubt that sitting through a double-bill of "The Dukes of Hazzard" and "Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo" will improve the polling numbers.
But the real problem with Hollywood isn't simply its glorification of sex, money and lame old TV shows. It's that our Ivy League-educated studio elite often don't know the difference between crass and class. How's this for an example: Sony Pictures, the studio that made "European Gigolo," has refused to release "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World," an inspired new film by Albert Brooks about a comedian -- Brooks, playing himself -- who is recruited by the U.S. government to go to India and Pakistan to find out what makes Muslims laugh.
The movie makes fun of comedians' neurotic neediness and State Department ineffectuality, but seems to steer clear of anything that would insult Muslims. Still, in a June 30 letter to Brooks, Sony chairman Michael Lynton said that he wouldn't release the film unless Brooks changed the title. Lynton wrote: "I do believe that recent incidents have dramatically changed the landscape that we live in and that this, among other things, warrants changing the title of the film." Sony insiders say Lynton was alarmed by the violent reaction in the Muslim world to Newsweek's May 9 story, since retracted, about a Koran being flushed down the toilet by interrogators at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Brooks' movie, financed by producer Steve Bing, has now found a new home at Warner Independent Pictures, which plans to release it early next year. Warner Indy chief Mark Gill says he had no problems with the title. "How often do you get a laugh simply from the title of a movie?" Gill told me. "We saw the movie, and it was clear that Albert makes fun of himself and America, not anybody else."
Lynton won't discuss the issue publicly, but perhaps he is worried that merely having "Muslim" in a film title could cause the kind of outrage that led to the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, whose film, "Submission," showed naked women with verses of the Koran projected on their bodies. I'd be worried if I'd made "Submission" too. But Brooks' film is a comedy, not a political screed, closer in spirit to Randy Newman than Salman Rushdie. I only wish I could get Lynton to explain why Sony was squeamish about Brooks' film and not "European Gigolo," which makes fun of a female Chernobyl victim who has a penis instead of a nose.
Brooks, in his first interview about the film, confirmed that Lynton expressed concern about Muslim outrage over the alleged Koran incident. "When we spoke, he told me, 'The Newsweek thing has changed the world.' And I said, 'Wasn't it 9/11 that changed the world?' But Michael said he just didn't want to take a chance."
Best known for such films as "Real Life" and "Lost in America," Brooks says he was inspired to make "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World" in the wake of 9/11. "For so long afterward, whenever I heard anyone talk about Muslims, it was in association with terrorism," he explained after screening the film for me at his Bel-Air office. "But I thought, what could I do in a teeny way -- and believe me, it's a teeny way -- to defuse this? There had to be some way to separate the 1.5 billion people who don't want to kill us from the 100,000 or so who do. I thought if I could get five Muslims and six Hindus and maybe 3 Jews to laugh for 90 minutes, then I've accomplished something."
In the film, Brooks is recruited for his mission by a government official, played by former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, also portraying himself. The comic heads for India, where he has a variety of misadventures, including a disastrous stand-up comedy concert and a botched meeting with Al Jazeera, which Brooks assumes is interested in his search for comedy when, in fact, the network wants to audition him for a sitcom. "At your age," says the Al Jazeera executive, as coolly pragmatic as any Hollywood agent, "you should think about television."