The title of the new Albert Brooks movie is as misleading as it is specific. For starters, the so-called Muslim world is largely restricted to India, a democratic ally of America with a majority Hindu population. Then there’s the subject of the film’s title, which implies an earnest inquiry into how a certain foreign culture chooses to leaven its moods. Instead, the film is the latest opportunity for Brooks to bring out his comic persona of overconfident ineptitude. For all of his project’s topicality and potential, however, funny is few and far between.
The film’s provocative title also carries a threat of treacly appeals to our common humanity under the analgesia of comedy, as with Life is Beautiful. Furthermore, one wonders if it’s appropriate to talk about humor being a bridge between cultures when there’s a basic power imbalance between the two worlds. While all we really want from the rest of the world is for them to appreciate us for our generosity and goodness, what they really want is a taste of our wealth and power. George Bush is surely a funnier man that Mahmoud Abbas or Muqtada al-Sadr, but champions of the poor and dispossessed are not noted for their sense of humor.
Surprisingly, Albert Brooks wisely avoids the temptation to proselytize on the healing powers of humor. He has made a film about the futility of the enterprise, though his approach is often so sly and subtle that the film elides virtually all meaning. It’s ostensibly a timely film, but it’s so frequently beside the point that it runs the risk of having as much to do with the war on terror as Citizen Kane has to do with the Spanish-American War.
The film is shot as a faux documentary, with Albert Brooks playing a comic actor and writer named Albert Brooks, in the by-now familiar self-referential mode of shows like Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. The film’s opening establishes this convention in a funny scene in which Brooks auditions for an acting gig in Penny Marshall’s new film. Although he doesn’t get the part, Brooks’ life changes when he gets a letter from the State Department, asking him to take on a special diplomatic mission. The delighted Brooks, seeing a Presidential medal in his future, gratefully but nervously accepts.
He’s given two G-men as security guards and comic foils, and together they fly to New Delhi where they set up an office with a locally-hired, enthusiastic and attractive secretary named Maya (Sheetal Sheth, an American actress). This mighty team goes forth into the streets, asking questions of the locals and eventually planning a stand-up gig in New Delhi, a city that allegedly lacks comedy clubs. Later, Brooks makes a quick excursion over the Pakistani border to meet with a furtive band of bearded, tough-looking Pakistani comedians.
Unlike the semi-improvisations of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Brooks’ film is heavily scripted, which is fine except that it severely limits the usefulness of the titular enterprise. The film’s centerpiece scene occurs when Brooks bombs at his gig before an uncomprehending New Delhi audience that purportedly lacks the cultural resources required to understand his ventriloquist gags. As always with Brooks, his shtick is about his own ineptitude and his bizarre, unearned cockiness and the running joke of the film is that he’s playing a clueless American comedian who bombs in Delhi–and pretty much everywhere else.
However, the press notes to the film tell a different story from what we see in the finished product: Apparently, the audience of Indian extras did in fact understand Brooks’ humor, and they had to be reminded repeatedly not to laugh during the shots. If this is so, how can we trust anything Brooks has to say about comedy in the Middle East if he alters reality in such a basic way, particularly in a film that adopts a documentary-like style?
More troubling is Brooks’ lack of interest in addressing his film’s ostensible topic with acumen. The fact that his film is set in India, rather than Iraq, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia is one thing (and it’s quite possibly intended as a very subtle joke). Later in the film, there’s a scene in which Brooks takes a meeting with representatives of Al-Jazeera. The scene turns out to be an Indian variation of a Hollywood pitch meeting, but the big punch line turns out to involve Arab anti-Semitism. Yes, the gag is funny, but it’s also a very cheap and ignorant shot at a courageous news network that has lost journalists in the field, had its Kabul bureau destroyed by American forces and its Qatar headquarters allegedly proposed by Bush as another bombing target.
While Brooks may take some hits for his film’s lack of political sophistication, it must be said that nowhere does Brooks claim to be making a documentary. That’s an erroneous assumption we’re free to make based on the topicality of the material and the fact that Brooks is appearing in the film as “himself.” In a strikingly similar film he made a quarter century ago called Real Life, Brooks satirized An American Family, the PBS series that anticipated the vogue for reality television way back in 1973. After bungling his way through the process of filming his Typical American Family, Brooks wailed, “Why did I choose reality, something about which I know nothing?!” Today, one can imagine Brooks–in his real and fictitious incarnations–saying much the same thing about Islam, and viewers expecting a serious discussion of Islamic popular culture in his film will be disappointed.
Opening this Friday is The Matador, a frustrating movie that features excellent acting work within the confines of a listless script and slack direction. Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear and Hope Davis all deliver relaxed, confident and entertaining performances in this blackly comic buddy movie but no one else involved with the production seems to be doing his or her job.
Still, there are some things to enjoy, chiefly the sight of Pierce Brosnan stumbling through a swank Mexican hotel lobby wearing only black briefs and unlaced boots and holding a drink and a cigar. As a skeevy hit man named Julian Noble, Brosnan wears a brushy mustache and a ton of preposterous attitude as he swaggers around the world doing contract killings at the behest of his agent, Mr. Randy (Philip Baker Hall). Underneath Julian’s shallow surface, however, he’s a lonely, needy child. Only slightly more mature is Kinnear’s Danny, an inhibited businessman who is the very antithesis of macho–where Julian casually bangs every easy chick between Denver and Dusseldorf, Danny struggles to get into the groove with his own wife Bean (Hope Davis).
When the suave killer encounters the nebbish businessman, while both are on business in Mexico City, a comic duet of enormous potential emerges. Sadly, there are exactly three and a half superb scenes in The Matador and they collectively make the film worth lingering over while channel-surfing a few months from now.
Written and directed by Richard Shepherd, this film falls under the thematic category of Modern Man in Search of Testicles, a genre best exemplified by the face-off between Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight in Deliverance, and more recently dramatized in the work of David Mamet and Neil LaBute–particularly In the Company of Men. While Brosnan and Kinnear have a marvelous time in their initial scenes together, the film’s narrative is so threadbare that the relatively brief running time feels like an excruciating death march. By the time Hope Davis gets to do a sly scene as Kinnear’s prim wife who fancies the piece of steel in Brosnan’s pants, it’s far too late.