Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World
The creators of the movie have no knowledge of cultural diplomacy. The head of a government commission (hey, it's Fred Thompson playing himself! aren't we witty?) drops the hint to Albert Brooks that if his mission goes well, he may get the Medal of Freedom. I have been on three government-funded missions of cultural diplomacy, and I have many friends who have been on many more. I think my Medal of Freedom must have gotten lost in the mail.
One running joke in the movie has the State Department insisting on a 500-page report. My reports to the State Department have always been about ten pages: here are my reports on Egypt and Pakistan. Even when a blue-ribbon commission created a landmark report about cultural diplomacy, it was 30 pages.
The behavior of the State Department in the movie is so far from the behavior of the real State that those of us who have had the pleasure of working with dedicated, compassionate State employees can laugh at the unintentional comedy of a scene where two State bureaucrats encourage Mr. Brooks to risk his life and violate international law with an illegal border crossing into Pakistan. State has canceled a CiH concert because protests had recently occurred near a proposed venue. The idea of them acting the way they do in this movie is preposterous.
I have never been to India, but I've been to Pakistan. Has anyone connected with this movie been closer than watching the first half of Slumdog Millionaire with the sound off? In this movie, Pakistan is poor, primitive, and filled with dangerous bearded men. The actual Pakistan vibrates with energy, intelligence, and decency. True, I did not see all of Pakistan, and I did see and smell the horrors of Lyari Slum. But my general impression was of a great and admirable people. Their portrayal in Hollywood perpetuates stereotypes that should be promptly jettisoned.
The movie's India, on the other hand, bustles with call centers and stunning women. One of those women, Maya, even starts to fall in love with the Albert Brooks character in a sickening way. The growth of her admiration for him implies that women from non-Western cultures prefer a Western man who respects them to the men from their own culture, who this movie portrays as uniformly repressive. Take it from my personal experience: a homely cultural diplomat of Jewish descent might fall in love with a beautiful Indian girl, but tired post-colonial clichés about gender relations do not obligate her to return the favor.
Diplomats of both countries, when the movie wants them to look sinister, speak languages other than English. Since an astonishing plethora of languages flourish in the subcontinent, the elite actually speak English in order to understand one another.
As an experiment, let us look past the dearth of knowledge about cultural diplomacy and the offensive orientalisms and take the movie at face value. Why not send a comedian to the Muslim world?
Certainly, it is a novel idea. Most cultural diplomats are educators, business people, writers, scholars, and the occasional artist. State should send more comedians to English-speaking countries. But the Albert Brooks of this movie would be the wrong choice.
He makes demands like a diva. He complains that the ambassador does not meet him at the airport? My precious few minutes with the US Ambassadors in Qatar, Papua New Guinea, Egypt, and Tunisia were extraordinary honors, and the truth is that sometimes, cultural missions do not even meet third-tier officials.
He wants a fully trained technical crew and a green room at the auditorium? If he traveled with CiH, he'd better be prepared to do a concert in the middle of the jungle in front of thatch huts with no electricity or running water.
Most importantly: he's not funny. In front of an audience in New Delhi, he attempts high concept satire of comedy itself: a "bad ventriloquist" routine, and an improviser who refuses to follow the audience's suggestions. Those bits are poor selections for any audience other than American hipsters with an extensive knowledge of borscht belt comedy and an inability to make a remark that's not ironic. Was the whole movie a similar attempt to poke fun at Hollywood orientalism? Not with the lack of empathy, plotting, dialogue scripting, or acting skills on display here.
Two jokes worked. Albert Brooks walks past the Taj Mahal so quickly he doesn't know where it is, in a satire of the tourist snapping pictures to show off later without really experiencing the wonders in front of him. A running joke in which the Brooks character's ineptitude brings India and Pakistan to the brink of war made me chuckle, and possibly provokes an important discussion about the times when cultural diplomacy can be counterproductive.
The movie failed to even make a million at the box office, so why am I so angry? Movies that grossed a hundred times more than this have gotten away with one-note portrayals of "exotic" cultures for too long. This is not to say that no Pakistanis are terrorists and there are no call centers in India, but why not explore foreigners as characters whose actions and words flow from the logic of human emotion that unites us all, even as it manifests itself differently in different cultures?
"Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World" might not have reinforced too many stereotypes, but the Jamie Foxx vehicle The Kingdom sure did. Here's hoping Bollywood sends a star here to make Looking for Comedy in America. They won't find it anywhere near this movie.