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"Are you going to run a tape recorder?" asks the voice on the other end of the phone.
"It's already running." I say.
"How do you like that. Running since morning?"
"Yes. You never know who's going to call."
"You leave it on all day just in case."
"I do the same thing."
Albert Brooks is calling me from his house in the San Fernando Valley, on a late December morning, just before he sets out on a national promotional tour for his seventh feature film as writer, director and star. I'm in LA too, just over the hill, yet Brooks has declined my request for an in-person meeting, supposedly because his schedule won't accommodate it. But Brooks is famous for preferring telephone conversations to the face-to-face kind, regardless of the extenuating circumstances. He doesn't like to leave the house if he can avoid it, his publicist tells me beforehand. He is, others have suggested, the most hermitic director since Stanley Kubrick, who was himself said to be a Brooks aficionado.
Which makes it all the more remarkable that, for his new film (and his first since The Muse in 1999), Brooks didn't just venture from the comforts of home, but all the way to India and Pakistan.
The movie is called Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World and it features Brooks as a comedian named Albert Brooks—not, he is quick to note, the same one I'm talking to right now—who gets recruited by the U.S. State Department (and former Senator Fred Dalton Thompson) for a matter of great national urgency. He is to travel to South Asia where, equipped with a wide-eyed assistant (the disarming Sheetal Sheth) and two mid-level government agents (Jon Tenney and John Carrol Lynch), it will be his task to discover what makes Muslim people laugh—and write a 500-page report about it.
But as Brooks points out, "The movie's called Looking, not Finding. That's a big difference. It's never claimed in the title that a goal is going to be reached. You know, in the cartoon I did, it was Finding Nemo."
As it happens, Brooks is no stranger to thwarted journeys and unrealized quests. The first time Albert Brooks played Albert Brooks, in his 1979 debut feature, Real Life, he was a megalomaniacal documentary filmmaker who ends up burning down his subjects' home just so his movie can have an ending. In Modern Romance (1981), he was film editor Robert Cole, obsessive-compulsively breaking up and making up with his girlfriend in an endless cycle of fear and self-loathing. Then, in Lost in America (1985), he was a Los Angeles advertising executive, quitting his job and resolved to travel across country in an RV, only to find himself stranded in Las Vegas when his wife blows their entire nest egg on an all-night casino binge. And now there's Looking for Comedy, in which Brooks doesn't glean enough insight for one of his 500 pages, but does manage to implode on stage during an SRO comedy concert and, ultimately, brings India and Pakistan to the brink of nuclear war.
The moral of the story, I suppose, being that comedians, like countries, sometimes bomb.
Coming on the heels of a holiday movie season rife with such highly charged fare as Munich and Syriana, Looking for Comedy and its gentle, if pointed, lesson in the art of miscommunication may not seem like the makings of a political controversy. But that didn't stop distributor Sony Pictures from refusing to release the film unless Brooks removed Muslim from the title. (He wouldn't, and eventually the movie was sold to Warner Independent Pictures.). And it did little to quell Brooks' nerves when the film was invited to be the first Hollywood movie to have its world premiere at the nascent Dubai Film Festival.
"I was very scared to go there," says Brooks. "I mean, if it was Brokeback Mountain, it would have been a different story. But it's Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World. First of all, there's really been no comedy out of America that even deals with this subject at all. Second of all, there've been almost no comedies anywhere that deal with this subject."
The film was a hit with festival audiences, however, and Brooks received a first-hand lesson in globalization in the process. "In Dubai, they have the largest shopping mall I've ever seen in my life," he says. "In this mall, they have a ski resort. It's a giant plastic bubble. You take chairs up. There are Arab children and big woolly coats. There's not just fake snow; they make it cold and windy. And you ski down these sizeable hills. Across from that is a Haagen Dazs, and then they have every store . . . you know, there are only about 300 stores that dominate the planet, and all of them are there. And in the windows are sexy women selling lingerie. You know, the same Victoria's Secret models. So you see these women in burkas going by, stopping for a moment, looking at the woman wearing nothing and going on to get some ice cream. And, in a weird way, I thought, 'You know maybe shopping will save this planet.'?"
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