The biggest joke in any Albert Brooks movie is Albert Brooks. Often, as in ''Modern Romance," ''Lost in America," and ''Defending Your Life," the joke is funny. The stupid world conspires to shame Brooks and his sense of superiority: What good is being better than everybody else if you lose at everything?
In Brooks's latest, ''Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World," failure and self-mockery are again the point. They're also a curious side effect: This is by far the most embarrassing of his seven movies.
The writer-director plays Albert Brooks, a pathetic version of the narcissistic filmmaker he played in 1979's ''Real Life," his best film. In this movie, a State Department commission, headed by the actor and former senator Fred Thompson, wants Brooks to tour India and Pakistan to find out what makes the Muslims there laugh. It's an attempt to improve international relations. Spying hasn't worked, maybe comedy will. Brooks frets about the volume of the assignment (a 500-page report!) but salivates over the Medal of Freedom that would come with its completion.
Accompanied by two dutiful government suits (John Carroll Lynch and Jon Tenney), Brooks stops first in India, where, needing an assistant, he hires a local named Maya (Sheetal Sheth). She's the only applicant with clerical skills who doesn't also happen to be an anti-Semite or aspiring transsexual. Brooks and Maya have a number of neat exchanges about tone. ''If I miss a sarcasm," she says, by way of apology, ''please tell me."
Someone in the movie calls Brooks the Henry Higgins of comedy, but the comparison doesn't hold. No sooner do his travels begin than ''Looking for Comedy" declines into condescension and casual racism.
Maya is eager to learn from Brooks. Brooks is content to loaf. He has her pad his report with gratuitous history and, along with the two suits, do all the legwork for a stand-up show he plans to perform. Brooks is cranky and receives no lasting joy from his accidental pupil. Everyone is odious to him, too, especially Lynch's character, who's an opinionated Brooks fan, and Maya's Iranian boyfriend (Homie Doroodian), who questions the comedian's choice in material. The more constructive their criticism, the more officious Brooks finds them.
There, of course, is the trouble. Brooks means himself to be odious, too. His awareness of this is the film's central conceit. But it's neither funny nor fun for us. We feel for his critics. In his other movies, Brooks's sense that he was right and everyone else was wrong was appealing because, as it happened, he was right -- or at least relatable. For a class of intelligent yet cowardly people who were fed up with or disillusioned by certain realities of American life, he was a spokesman. Here it's unclear to whom he's speaking.
''Looking for Comedy" appears to send up American aloofness. But the targets are all Third World. Brooks doesn't provide a significant counterpoint to his snobbery. The office the government finds him in India, for instance, is a shabby box down the hall from an all-purpose call center that the movie uses for easy laughs (''The White House," one receptionist says. ''How may I direct your call?").
Uninterested in his original idea, Brooks tries a change-up that pushes the movie into early Woody Allen farce. Word of his mission and a furtive trip across the border make the Indian and Pakistani governments suspicious. Could he haphazardly provoke these two to start warring again? Another interesting possibility. But Brooks is dabbling.
For one thing, he isn't looking for comedy. He's trying to see whether his act plays with Muslims and Hindus. We learn in one disastrous encounter between Brooks and a packed house in New Delhi that it doesn't.
On another night he watches what looks like a local sitcom, but it never occurs to him to find out whether Indians like it, or why. He goes all the way to South Asia and all he learns is how to make a bomb.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.