OK, here's my problem: I'm not that high on the new Albert Brooks picture, "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World." But I hate panning a personal hero, a guy who moved the boundary posts of satire. So let's take a moment to look for comedy in Brooks' world.
He's the son of a dialect comedian known as Parkya Karkas -- real name Harry Einstein, who thought it was a stitch to name his son Albert. After changing it, Brooks became a kind of anti-comedian -- a mime you couldn't follow, a ventriloquist who talked while his dummy drank water.
He moved on to making squirm comedies, films in which he explored his own neuroses. Real Life was a send-up of fly-on-the-wall documentaries: Brooks' filmmaker character ends up destroying the life of the family he's documenting. In "Modern Romance," he's a jealous lover who keeps breaking up with his girlfriend and begging her to take him back.
Brooks' masterpiece is "Lost In America," an anti-road road movie. He plays a starry-eyed baby-boomer who embarks on a journey of discovery and discovers he can't journey beyond his own head. "Defending Your Life" is a charming afterlife love story that targets Brooks' failures of nerve: it says you only really live when you conquer your fears. And "Mother" has a wonderful premise: a guy moves in with his mom to find out why he can't make his love life work.
"Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World" has a wonderful premise, too. It's all Brooks' usual anxieties plus the post-9/11 fear of an alien culture. Brooks plays a worst-case cartoon of himself: an out-of-work filmmaker who jumps at an offer from the State Department to travel to India and Pakistan to learn what Muslims find funny. The idea is that we've spied on them and fought with them, but never tried to understand them.
You're primed for a collision between two ways of looking at this world (and the next), but Brooks pays less and less attention to Muslims and more and more to what a solipsistic jerk his character is. Where is the comedy in the Muslim world? Brooks' character doesn't just fail to find it, he fails in a dull way. Brooks makes himself look like a lazy dope instead of the grand, passionate, larger-than-life fool of his best movies. C'mon, Albert, you're better than this.