There once was a time when I thought Albert Brooks looked to have unseated Woody Allen as America's reigning comedy filmmaker. That would have been as long ago as Modern Romance, 1981, and would have lasted at least another ten years, through Defending Your Life. Allen around that time had gotten a little away from comedy, with Interiors, September, Another Woman, among others. Even when he got back to it, in A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose, even in one of his finest inspirations, The Purple Rose of Cairo, he did not always get back to being funny. The other Brooks, Mel, had by then run out of gas (History of the World Part I, Spaceballs, Life Stinks) and had fallen by the wayside. Since that period, Albert, too, has dropped off in both inspiration and productivity (Mother, The Muse), while Woody, although he can seldom be bothered to follow through on his inspirations, has regained some ground through sheer persistence. No contemporary filmmaker can match his pace over so long a haul. But the competition, if it ever existed anywhere but in my own mind, no longer matters. Not only has it sunk to a lower level, but the emergence of the Coen brothers has thrown it into the shade. Nobody in the past fifteen years has made me laugh like they have.
The new Brooks and Allen films, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World and Match Point, tantalizingly arriving in town together, can hardly revive any rivalry, even though Brooks is back in top form and Allen not far below. It will not work as a head-to-head matchup simply because Allen has again gotten away from comedy. Apples and oranges. He has also, more notably, gotten away from Manhattan and environs, if also not for the first time. (Don't forget Sweet and Lowdown, Shadows and Fog, Love and Death, et al.) Yet he has never before so successfully gotten away from himself, and not just because he is not on screen in this one. (He has tried that often enough, too.) The story -- a didactic illustration of the role of luck in human affairs, taking as its central metaphor a ball clipping the top of the net in a game of tennis, freeze-framed indecisively in midair -- traces the progress of a lowborn Irish tennis pro (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), not quite good enough to have held his own on the circuit with Sampras and Agassi, interested now in life's finer things -- literature, art, opera -- and wanting to "do something special, you know, make a contribution," but led by happenstance into the British upper class, into the affections of a sweet-natured, uncomplicated heiress (Emily Mortimer), into the family business, into a pact, if you will, with Mephistopheles, and into a bit of a sticky wicket. His prospective brother-in-law's American fiancée (Scarlett Johansson), a struggling actress but an accomplished flirt, has a certain something that his own ladylove lacks: "Did anyone ever tell you you have extremely sensual lips?" And Jonathan Rhys-Meyers should know! These two pairs of lips appear destined to meet.
The developments to this point and beyond unfold organically, efficiently, covering a lot of ground swiftly yet without hurry, in the craftsmanly manner of Golden Age Hollywood. They hold, even if they do not tightly grip, your interest. The decision of DreamWorks to tout the film as a "thriller" betrays a degree of worry over viewer impatience. At a full two hours, this is (correct me if I am wrong) the longest Woody Allen film to date, and it had no apparent need to be. In truth, the closer it comes to the vicinity of a thriller, the more it starts to slow down, to drag, to grind. (Not that Allen hasn't a trick or two up his sleeve: an unforeseeable reprise of the central metaphor and a deceptive unlucky bounce.) Certainly in the earlier stretches, the film is not without humor, the humor of ambitions, relationships, desires. It can quite comfortably be classed as a Human Comedy, if no other kind. It reminded me in tone a little of Allen's last one, Melinda and Melinda, the one that intended to split its time between comedy and tragedy but in fact could never much differentiate. A betwixt-and-between tone. A detached and dispassionate tone.
The British milieu and accents prove to be an effective, a brilliant disguise for Allen's familiar rhythms and idioms, and I can't help but wonder how well the film would hold your interest if you stumbled into it without knowing what -- or rather, whom -- you were seeing. (The golden glaze and the calm camera, long since recovered from the fleeting jitters of Husbands and Wives, might have clued you in. And while the opera on the soundtrack, in place of Allen's preferred jazz, could have thrown you off the scent, the scratchiness of the mono recordings -- Caruso, where most modern filmmakers would have opted for a digital Domingo or Pavarotti -- might again have got the scent up.) My own suspicion is that, for all its polish and proficiency, the film desperately depends on your awareness that it's Allen and your search for substantiation. For recognition. It's a sure cure for your recent boredom with him.
The Brooks film is different. The enormous pleasure of it is in finding him once again as he was, at his self-belittling best, and for the first time since his first film, Real Life, literally playing "himself," though one would hope not altogether accurately. Naturally he is older. It is now more than six years since his last directing job, although his mere acting job in The In-Laws has not gone forgotten: "Why in God's name did they remake that?" wonders Penny Marshall (as "herself") before interviewing him for the lead role in her own remake of Harvey. (His prouder calling card, the voice of a fish in Finding Nemo, did not expose him to personal inspection.) The hairpiece and/or hair dye, too monolithically dark for his melting, crumpling face, can here be seen as the vanity and insecurity of the character rather than of the actor. Whether or not he meant it to be seen as that.
The idea of the film is self-evidently an inspired one. The U.S. State Department, hoping to win the hearts and minds of the Muslim peoples by better understanding their sense of humor, recruits a "respected" comedian to travel to India and Pakistan for one month and to write up a 500-page report on his findings, with no remuneration beyond the Medal of Freedom and its tricolor ribbon. And, too, "You'd be doing your country a great service." It might be enough to say that the idea is done to a turn, and that the best a critic can do is not to spoil the gags. (Well, maybe for just one example, the unspoilable running gag of a roomful of Indian phone operators fielding toll-free calls for OnStar, Harry and David, even the White House.) I would simply want to add that the idea is a good one not only as an entry, albeit tangential and superficial, to the subject of the War on Terror, but even more so as an entry, and a deep one, into the subject of Albert Brooks, a way for him to confront the bugaboos of his spotty career, the cruel truth that many people (Muslims, doubtless, but Gentiles, Jews, too, merrymaking Americans of all stripes) do not find him funny and many others do not even know who he is. "I bet he thinks he's writing to Mel Brooks," he grumps at the letter of invitation from the head of the State Department commission, Fred Dalton Thompson (as "himself"). And later, at a meeting much more courteous than Penny Marshall's bum's-rush audition, when he at last gets to ask, "Why me?," the answer doesn't flatter: "Quite frankly, our first few choices were working." To the extent that the idea affords Brooks a way to confront these bugaboos, it equally affords him a way to prove his bravery, notwithstanding his demurral at the illegal border-crossing into Pakistan: "I've never been known for bravery." He always ought to have been. He should surely be hereafter.
It could no doubt be alleged that the limitation of all of Brooks's films, and this one no exception, is his obsessive concern with self and little else. But in mitigation it could be answered that the other principal characters on display, while few in number and not deeply probed, are astutely cast and played: John Carroll Lynch and Jon Tenney as the stolid, imperturbable State Department flunkies assigned as chaperones, and Sheetal Sheth as the endearingly enthusiastic but uncomprehending Hindu amanuensis. The further, the deeper mitigation of Brooks's self-concern is of course his self-satire. If he spends most of his time looking at and into himself (instead of for comedy in the Muslim world), at least he's not satisfied with what he sees. And not only can he make fun of himself, he can actually be funny doing it. Slayingly funny. His solo concert in an out-of-the-way school auditorium, ostensibly to gauge the responses of a New Delhi audience to assorted types of comedy, serves on the one hand to document for eternity material from Brooks's stand-up bag (the ventiloquist bit, the improv bit), and on the other hand to attest to the mortification, the slow and painful on-stage death, of the insatiably needy and insufficiently loved performer. The film may peak at that point, just two-thirds of the way through. But the peak is a Himalaya.