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Issue Date:  February 3, 2006

Exploring far-flung cultures

Albert Brooks goes to India in 'Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World'; 'The New World' weaves a poem about the origins of America


Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, the new film by Albert Brooks, shows the comedian being recruited by the government -- former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, playing himself -- to find out what makes Muslims laugh. The implication is that this might be more helpful than employing military force.

When Sony Pictures, which regularly enrages citizens of Middle Eastern countries with material full of sex, violence and materialism, refused to release the movie, Mark Gill, the head of Warner Independent Pictures, decided that they should make it available. After seeing it, he said, “Albert makes fun of himself and America, not anybody else.” Mr. Brooks hoped he might accomplish something “if I could get five Muslims, six Hindus and maybe three Jews to laugh for 90 minutes.” The problem is that the film gets its chief fun out of exposing the comedian’s self-absorption, and we don’t laugh that long.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t amusing moments. Mr. Brooks, flabbergasted that he is supposed to deliver a 500-page report on what makes Muslims laugh, is deeply touched when promised the Medal of Freedom for his work; he is even told that President Bush, who is behind the project, “has a pretty darn good sense of humor.”

Mr. Brooks gets minimal support from his State Department assistants, who accompany him to India but can only find him a tiny office in a building full of outsourced call banks. After conducting a few farcical interviews with would-be secretaries who cannot type (and would prefer to work for Mel Gibson), he finally locates the charmingly naive Maya (Sheetal Sheth), who takes notes as he asks a few hapless Indians what makes them laugh. She even praises his New Delhi comedy concert, where Mr. Brooks appears in absurd native garb and tries to explain improvisation to a profoundly unresponsive audience.

Summoned to meet the top brass of Aljazeera, Mr. Brooks thinks they’re interested in his search for Muslim comedy; they only want him for a TV sitcom in which a Jew will be the butt of jokes. His wife encourages him to consider the offer and bring home some good photos.

Strangely enough, though The New York Times runs a story on Muslim comedians every few months, the only comedy Mr. Brooks finds comes with the help of Pakistani hashish. Basically, the movie’s dry humor grows out of exposing Mr. Brooks as a nerd. It’s inoffensive but soon runs out of steam.

The New World is a new film by Terrence Malick, whose career took off with the self-assured “Badlands” (1973). A work of astonishing beauty that retells the story of Pocahontas, “The New World” opened on Christmas to qualify for Academy Award nomination. It has been cut 15 minutes. Still too long, it is now playing nationally.

Mr. Malick took an independent attitude to Hollywood from the start, emphasizing artistry over narrative. When birds take flight in “The New World,” we feel something important is taking place, but the director’s constant use of interior monologue in scenes between Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) and Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) becomes tiresomely arty.

Some reviewers have been hard on Mr. Malick for choosing such a familiar story, one that had even been used by Disney. But 15-year-old Ms. Kilcher is so spontaneous and bewitching, convincing her father to spare Smith after he is captured trying to arrange trade with the Indians, that few will complain. The chaste courtship between Pocahontas and Smith goes on too long, but one hardly tires of the young girl’s graceful movements. Mr. Farrell is convincing as the independent adventurer who comes to appreciate the Indian paradise: “They have no jealousy, no sense of possession.”

Her father exiles Pocahontas for giving the colonists seed for planting corn (which means they can stay), and Smith breaks her heart by accepting an assignment to go north in search of a passage to the East. Things become less interesting as John Rolfe (Christian Bale) tries to comfort the abandoned exile. She finally marries him when she believes Smith is dead, and soon finds comfort in a baby boy.

Apparently there is an historical basis for bringing a westernized Pocahontas to England along with her husband and little boy, where she is feted by royalty. We see stately homes and beautiful gardens, but things don’t pick up until the reunion scene between Smith and Pocahontas, followed by her decision to return to America with the faithful Rolfe.

What one remembers of “The New World” is not the plot, but photographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s rhapsodic shots of sky, trees and water and the easy movements of Ms. Kilcher as she tries to commune with the spirit of her dead mother.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail is

Quick takes
Eugene Jarecki’s Why We Fight is an informative documentary that draws on President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address warning against “the military industrial complex.” Mr. Jarecki argues that governments make war for profit but avoids Michael Moore’s satiric style. He builds his case not on entertainment but facts, using newsreels, educational films and political analysis (Gore Vidal versus William Kristol).

National Catholic Reporter, February 3, 2006

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