Monday, January 23, 2006

New Film: Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World & Match Point

I am an Albert Brooks fan. A big Albert Brooks fan. To me, Modern Romance (1981), Lost in America (1985) and Defending Your Life (1991) each rate among the best American comedies of their era, with Real Life (1979) and Mother (1996) not far behind. The lone dud in his corpus is his 1999 Sharon Stone-vehicle The Muse, which even I will concede doesn't qualify as a good film, quote-endquote.

After seeing the trailer for Brooks's latest, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, and learning of Warner Brother's unceremonious dumping of the picture onto its independent label, I worried that Brooks perhaps had made something roughly equivalent to his earlier failure. I am pleased to report that Looking for Comedy... isn't the unmitigated disaster I had feared. Okay, so it isn't a great film either, but all things considered, Looking for Comedy... is a minor success for a director whom many would seem prepared to toss on the ash heap of film history. Sure, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is minor Brooks. But the mere fact that it is still an ambitious, intelligent comedy while holding that distinction confirms Brooks as a major American film artist, in spite of his small output. In other words, even minor Brooks can be quite good.

The premise of Looking for Comedy... is compelling enough: an American council, headed by Fred Dalton Thompson, has selected Albert Brooks to travel to India and Pakistan in order to learn what it is that makes Muslims laugh (as a first step in developing an understanding of that Byzantine culture). Okay, so he wasn't exactly their first choice, but they did eventually chose him -- and with the inducement of the "Medal of Freedom," for which Brooks is more than a little excited, he's sold. Plus, it's not exactly like Brooks has been working a lot lately.

In fact, Looking for Comedy... trades on this suggestion that Brooks is a has-been, who is now best-known for voicing Nemo, not for his brilliant directorial work. Having said that, Brooks's work in Looking for Comedy... remains nothing if not ambitious, as he challenges the new orthodoxy of our overtly-political present: is the US's problem that it does not better understand the Muslim world? Ostensibly, Brooks's answer seems to be that for better or worse, any cursory attempts at such an understanding cannot yield the intended results -- leading the film to its clever concluding punchline. Indeed, it is in this final bit of humor that Brooks's concerns coalesce as we are instructed on the political implications of his post 9-11 endeavors (speaking of both the film and the project depicted by the film).

Yet, it is often less the political issues that guide Brooks in Looking for Comedy... than it is the autobiographical elements of the persona that he has once again resurrected for the screen. That his project goes so horribly awry indicates not his self-pity but rather his self-deprecating humor, which it should be remembered largely separates Brooks from his East Coast counterpart, Woody Allen, and the latter's competing screen personality. Typically the punchline to many of his own jokes, here Brooks trots out his thirty year-old stage act to a confused New Delhi public, which hasn't nearly the familiarity with his smart takes on improv and ventriloquist routines that his jokes obviously demand. As a matter of fact, a companion of his later points this out to an affronted Brooks, who as always remains confident of his comedy's (and crowd's) intelligence.

Indeed, what we get yet again is an Albert Brooks unwilling to compromise his art -- he is offered an al Jeezera sitcom in which he would play the "Jew" in a Muslim apartment complex, to which he reiterates his refusal to do t.v. -- even if this means making a comedy which isn't always that funny. One might even say there is a certain avant-garde quality to Looking for Comedy... provided Brooks's willingness to describe himself on-screen as a has-been with comedy that is thirty years out-of-date. Then again, Brooks shows himself to be on the vanguard when it comes to addressing post-9/11 reality. In this, Looking for Comedy... hardly seems minor.

As I have mentioned, Brooks's natural filmmaking double has long been Woody Allen, whom I admire a good deal less, customarily. Consequently, I found myself rather skeptical when I heard all the praise surrounding Allen's latest, Match Point. Having ultimately succumbed to the hype, let me just say that this is indeed Allen's best in quite some time -- perhaps the last equivalent work is his 1992 Husbands and Wives, which of course shares a mutual interest in marital infidelity and Ingmar Bergman. Without elaborating in too much detail or giving away too much of the plot, suffice it to say that Allen successfully weaves his operative metaphor (the tennis ball that could go over the net or fall back on one's own side in equal measure) into the narrative in an organic and I would say surprising way. Sure, he is tempted by his characteristic heavy-handedness here -- but so was his primary source for the film, Bergman, almost to a film -- but ultimately this sporadic failing detracts very little from what is ultimately an expertly narrated crime drama. If last year's atrocious Melinda and Melinda made me want to forget Allen's existence entirely, Match Point is a reminder that he can be a very good director -- even when his dialogue is hopelessly dated and his lead, Scarlet Johansson, is a black hole when it comes to charisma. What is really on display here is exceptional story-telling structure coupled with a clean, classical technique. Given the converging elements of Allen's pacing and plotting, the other player's uniformly strong performances and Johansson's rotten one, Match Point truly made me hope for its male lead's happiness, whatever that might mean -- think of Hitchcock's Frenzy (1972). What I will not give it credit for is an avant-garde, cringe-producing performance equaling Brooks's intentionally bad comedy. With that said, Match Point marks one of those rare occasions when Allen has been unmistakably better than Brooks. I guess that goes to show what he can still do when he stays out of the film and away from comedy.

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