Shortly after the Jordanian newspaper editor Jihad Momani was fired for reprinting controversial Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, he was asked whether the world lacks a sense of humour. "Religion is a red line," he replied. "You have to know how to respond." Hours later, he was in jail fa-cing charges of insulting his faith. Momani and others like him have stumbled upon an important question: how much satire will modern Islam - and, indeed, the US-led "war on terror" - tolerate?
It's a question that makes Albert Brooks's film Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World remarkably well-timed. Brooks, Hollywood's reigning king of self-effacing skewering (he is the man behind Lost in America and Defending Your Life) grew increasingly frustrated after the 11 September 2001 attacks that "no one was doing anything comedy-wise in movies about this new world we were living in". This film is his attempt to remedy that. Brooks wants the west to stop being seduced by fear and to start looking for common ground with the Muslim world. And nothing, in his view, provides more fertile ground for unity than comedy.
The film, which opened in the US on 20 January (a UK distribution deal is in the works), glories in being self-referential. Brooks, who also wrote and directed it, plays an actor named Albert Brooks who has been tasked by the US government to discover what makes Muslims laugh. He is despatched to India and Pakistan and instructed to compile his findings in a stressfully long official report on the state of Muslim humour. For performing this important civic duty, Brooks might just be bestowed with a shiny Presidential Medal of Freedom.
It is a premise with potential, but unfortunately Brooks quickly squanders it. The subject that he is supposedly addressing - the character of Muslim humour - doesn't even get a look-in, because the film focuses so relentlessly on Brooks himself. Playing his stock character, the oblivious and self-centred American, he spends most of his time disregarding the fact that most of the Indians he encoun-ters are not, in fact, Muslim. A stand-up concert in Delhi merely provides him with an excuse to revive his decades-old greatest hits from The Ed Sullivan Show for an unsmiling audience. And when he manages to sneak across the Pakistani border in the dead of night for a brief rendezvous with a group of hash-smoking comedians, he fails to find out which jokes are doing the rounds in Lahore, and instead merely treats the others to a reprise of his stand-up concert routine.
It is clear by this point that a more apt title for the film might have been The Albert Brooks Show. However, Brooks does pause his career retrospective long enough to offer up a few cheap and predictable laughs. Visiting executives at al-Jazeera back in Delhi, he is dismayed to learn that they aren't interested in helping with his fact-finding: they just want him to star in a sitcom called That Darn Jew.
Brooks is right to mock the appalling lack of laughter in international affairs, and his desire to bring a little levity to the misunderstandings and miscommu-nications that define relations between Muslim countries and the west is commendable. His heart is undoubtedly in the right place. When he looks out at his Delhi audience and says, "By what you laugh at, you are going to teach me who you are," he sums up the predicament of the confused but curious global citizen who is willing to reach out across the divide.
Yet, in hoping to give the lie to one stereotype - that Muslims are the bad guys - Brooks ends up reinforcing others: that Muslims are Jew-bashers, or potheads, and are indistinguishable from Hindus. Such characterisations may make a change from the "Muslim-as-terrorist" stereotype we are endlessly spoon-fed in the west, but that doesn't mean that the project is worthy of praise.
Brooks will tell anyone willing to listen that the film had the audience rolling in the aisles when it premiered at the Dubai International Film Festival in December, but this hardly makes it a primer in cross-cultural comedic enlightenment. You'll leave the cinema none the wiser about which jokes play in Peoria, much less Peshawar. It's a shame that, in a film Brooks deservingly calls a first, lessons that are so badly needed are in such short supply.
Carolyn O'Hara is an editor at Foreign Policy magazine