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.