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Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World

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        I saw two strange mismatched movies this weekend. It all started last night, as I finished dinner, made coffee, and went to the movies in my own house. I turned on my HDTV and watched Bubble, Steven Soderbergh's new film, that is being released simultaneously in the theatres, on Cable and on DVD. It played on one of my few HD channels so I was able to watch it opening night in the comfort of my own home. But don't worry. Even if this becomes commonplace, I won't stop going out to the movie theatre because I do love it so. Tonight, I did venture out. I went to see Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, Albert Brooks' attempt at a post-9/11 comedy. Bubble tells the story of three people who work in a doll factory in a small Ohio town. The central character is a middle-aged woman (Debbie Doebereiner) who is pretty happy with her dead-end life. She works at the factory, takes care of her aged father, and is friends with a young fellow worker (Dustin James Ashley). He is not so happy with his dead-end life. He lives with his mother and smokes pot in his bedroom to pass the time. These two boring lives are disrupted by the appearance of a new factory worker (Misty Dawn Wilkins) who immediately drives a wedge between the two friends. And since this film is following the small-Indie-film playbook, the three main characters are thrown into a death spiral that seems to be out of their control. Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, on the other hand, is straight comedy. Albert Brooks playing himself, but with a fictional wife (Amy Ryan) and daughter (Emma Lockhart), is called on by actor (The Hunt for Red October, Law & Order) and ex-US Senator, Fred Dalton Thompson, also playing a fictional version of himself, to visit India and Pakistan to help the US government understand better what makes Muslims laugh. With two State Department hacks (Jon Tenney & John Carroll Lynch) in tow, Brooks heads off to New Delhi, where he is assisted by a local woman (Sheetal Sheth). While in India and on a short visit to Pakistan, Brooks tries to understand Muslim humor while causing an international incident.

        Even though Steven Soderbergh, a native of Baton Rouge, is one of the world's most successful directors (Sex, Lies & Videotape,Traffic, Ocean's Eleven), Bubble has the look and feel of an extremely low-budget Indie film by a first time writer/director. Soderbergh and writer, Coleman Hough (Full Frontal), picked the cast from locals in the town where the film was shot. None of cast has previous film experience, but used their own life experiences as the bases for their characters. The resulting film is interesting but somehow unsatisfying. The pace is slow and I have to admit to looking at my watch a few times. But Bubble does portray small town life in a very terrifying way. This terror is enhanced by the scenes in the factory where different parts of the dolls anatomies are being manufactured and put together. The dolls almost make this into a horror film but luckily there is no Chucky-esq doll, that comes to life and starts killing everyone. The cast is quite good in their low-key way, especially considering they are not actors. Misty Wilkins, for instance, is a 30 year old single mother of four. But like I said, I came away feeling that something was missing. There isn't enough backstory on the characters to explain the strange events. Bubble ends up a bit like In Cold Blood. A big part of the horror is never knowing why.

        I went out to see Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World because it seemed like a really funny idea and the trailer looked funny. I like Albert Brooks. He is in two of my favorite movies, Defending Your Life and Broadcast News. In the first of these, which he also wrote and directed, he shows just how funny he can be, and in the latter, he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. The problem with Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is that it just doesn't find much comedy. It has a great setup and it must have sounded great when it was pitched to the studios, but the movie itself isn't very funny. Even more than in Bubble, I was wanting to look at my watch, hoping the movie would end soon. It's too bad. Brooks is good and his supporting cast does their best with the material. Tenney and Lynch are journeymen character actors and will look very familiar to you. Tenney is making his living doing guest shots on police shows (The Closer, CSI, The Division, Without a Trace), and Lynch has one of those great schlub faces (Gothika, The Good Girl, Fargo). But relative newcomer Sheetal Sheth, who plays Brooks' Indian assistant, is the one who steals the film. She is very good, but it wasn't hard to steal scenes in this movie. BTW, Sheth is from New Jersey not New Delhi. I've heard that Woody Allen wears his own clothes in his films. I was thinking of this because I swear that Albert Brooks was wearing the same outfits in Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World that he wore in Defending Your Life. I think there is a crying need for a good post-9/11 comedy but, unfortunately, this isn't it.

        Some weekends, it's my job to see movies so you don't have to. This was one of those weekends. You are better off staying home and watching Defending Your Life.