Albert Brooks has a great wince.
His eyes form little half moons, his shoulders hunch almost imperceptibly and his dark, curly hair appears to tighten. It's an indicator of his discomfort and generally precedes a low-decibel whine that says, "I don't know about this ... "
In "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World," Brooks' gently amusing take on the U.S. relationship with the Islamic world, he's uncomfortable a good part of the time and not without reason. The writer-director plays an American comedian named Albert Brooks whose career bears a more-than-passing resemblance to his own.
The fictional Albert Brooks of the film shares the same highs and lows as the filmmaker -- who most recently starred in the dismal remake of "The In-Laws" and the animated blockbuster "Finding Nemo," in which, of course, no one sees his face. The lack of a visible hit has triggered a period of "inactivity" known in other lines of work as being unemployed. He can't even get more than a perfunctory meeting with director Penny Marshall for her remake of "Harvey."
When he gets home from that disappointing meeting, his EBay-obsessed wife (Amy Ryan) presents him with a registered letter from the State Department. Brooks fears that it's about a little visit he paid to an Al Qaeda website.
Instead, he's summoned to Washington where Fred Dalton Thompson (the former senator from Tennessee who now plays the D.A. on "Law & Order") is heading a special committee. As Thompson puts it, the government would like to try a new tactic, different from the usual "spying or fighting," and attempt to understand the people of Islam. They want Brooks -- not their first choice -- to spend a month in India and Pakistan and file a 500-page report on what makes the people of the region laugh.
He's assigned two State Department functionaries (John Carroll Lynch and Jon Tenney) who accompany him to New Delhi, where they set up an office in a dreary little building that seems to house all of the world's outsourced customer service centers.
Brooks hires an enthusiastic Hindu assistant named Maya (Sheetal Sheth), who has a jealous Iranian boyfriend (Homie Doroodian), and begins interviewing people on the street about what they think is funny.
It's not the trip to the far-off land that most unnerves Brooks (though he's not keen on flying coach or the fact that no one meets them at the airport), but the length of the report he's asked to write -- which is brief by bureaucratic standards, he's assured by the committee. When he discovers that there are no comedy clubs in India, he decides to do a free stand-up comedy concert for several hundred people in a school auditorium. What they laugh at will be the key to who they are (he hopes) and allow him to fill those many pages.
"Looking for Comedy" is not Brooks' funniest film, but it possesses his trademark wry humor and is slyly observant. At first glance, it would appear not to have much to say. But Brooks, a low-key comedian, has a fondness for the broad, high-concept set-up that masks the subtlety of his satire.
Here, he takes great pains to portray the Indians and Pakistanis with sensitivity, avoiding stereotypes for the most part and presenting a naturalistic view of their contemporary societies. Brooks has always been interested in the juncture where "Real Life" (which was the title of his first feature) veers off into comedy, which is actually what he is parodying in the film. The difficulty of comedy and the neuroses and insecurities of its practitioners are the real targets. The funniest moments are not when the character is deliberately trying to make people laugh, but rather in the human interactions and absurd situations in which he finds himself.
Though his typically clueless on-screen persona learns very little about comedy or Muslims, Brooks the filmmaker makes the underlying point that true understanding is achieved through observation and empathy.
`Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for drug content and brief strong language
A Warner Independent Pictures release. Writer-director Albert Brooks. Producer Herb Nanas. Executive producer JoAnn Perritano. Director of photography Thomas Ackerman. Editor Anita Brandt-Burgoyne. Costume designer Deborah Everton. Music Michael Giacchino. Production designer Stephen Altman. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
In selected theaters.