I’ve been kind of working up to this post for a while. Friends who read this blog have been asking why I haven’t covered this subject yet as my favourite film-maker’s oeuvre is perhaps the best distillation of everything this blog was set up to represent – the promotion of films which should be better known. This guy has been making films since 1979. Wonderful, funny, warm yet satirical films – often with big stars – yet his films seem to go generally unacknowledged. With the exception of 1999’s The Muse (which starred Sharon Stone before her career waned) not one of his films has been released on DVD in the UK. I find this scandalous as there is nothing obtuse or niche about his work, it’s accessible and hilarious to a wide audience. If any cinema owners or rep screening clubs are reading this, you should really let me program a season of his work. Anyway… who is this genius? Well, you might know him – he’s the bad guy from Drive.
In this country, Albert Brooks is definitely best known as an actor. You’d recognise him. Despite his fantastic malevolent performance opposite Ryan Gosling, he’s known as the sweat-soaked Aaron in Broadcast News, Tom in Taxi Driver and for voicing Marlin in Finding Nemo. He’s a regular guest voice on The Simpsons and made his name as a 70’s stand-up who also contributed some great short films to the first season of SNL.
The best way to describe him is an everyman Woody Allen. His films are all about social situations and how people relate to one another. Like Allen, Brooks writes (well, co-writes), directs and plays the flawed leading man in all of his films. Brooks is a more likable, as neurotic, less intelligent version of the Woody persona. He always plays a man with a good heart on a mission to achieve something worthy but who always overestimates his own intelligence and ability to cope. He flits between puppy-dog enthusiasm and cow-eyed dejection. His films are a genre unto themselves; gently satirising society through the actions of a modern man trying to do well. They’re all infused with a Frank Capra kind of quality but retain a healthy cynicism. Maybe Brooks’ character represents what Jimmy Stewart might have been had he fallen foul of 60s faux spiritualism and landed on his face in 80s yuppydom. Brooks has only made 7 films to date, so I figure I might as well introduce you to each of them. They are all available on Region 1 DVD, which will play in most UK machines.
REAL LIFE (1979)
Brooks’ first film was probably his most daring. It’s certainly the most challenging in terms of genre. It’s a faux documentary in which Brooks both directs and plays himself – at his most endearingly buffoonish – directing. Essentially, he has decided to make the ultimate documentary about the modern American family. The fact that the director is in almost every frame of the film is a great comedic riff about the arrogance of documentary filmmakers trying to capture social reality whilst putting themselves slap-bang in the middle of it. It’s an incredibly refreshing style and not only is it very funny – holding its own against Spinal Tap in this traditionally hard-to-master category – but it’s very very clever. Brooks skewers the pomposity and arrogance of factual filmmakers but also manages to somehow be 25 years ahead of his time and make a film which managed to predict exactly where television would go and exactly how ludicrous it would be. In this age of reality TV, fly-on-the-wall and instant celebrity, Real Life is actually more relevant than ever. Brooks is supported by the brilliance of Charles Grodin as the father of the family.
MODERN ROMANCE (1981)
Modern Romance is just a joy of a film. It reminds me a lot of Curb Your Enthusiasm in the way we just get to see a central character having to deal with the general stresses of daily life (if you’re a Curb fan you might just recognise the other chap in that clip too, he happens to be Brooks’ brother in real life). Nominally this is a rom-com but that tag doesn’t do this film justice, I can see how it would be a hard film to market as it doesn’t have any real romance in it and is far more a study of a semi-intelligent man’s neuroses about being in a relationship. I have no idea how authentic it is but it has always seemed a nice little time capsule about the life of a filmmaker in LA in the late 70s/early 80s, it has a lot of delicious background texture rooted firmly in that era, exploring the comedy endemic in the trappings of the time including jogging, quaaludes and the endless manufacture of shitty sci-fi films desperate to cash-in on the success of Star Wars. Like all of Brooks’ subsequent films, it plays at a leisurely pace and story takes a back seat to essentially a series of wonderfully dry comic sketches featuring some of the best character actors of the era being given the space to excel.
LOST IN AMERICA (1985)
I think this is one of the great films about 1980s America and the Baby Boom generation. It kills me how few people seem to have seen it. Brooks plays a highly successful advertising exec who, childishly wounded by being passed over for promotion, decides to liquify his assets, sell his house, buy a winnebago and live a nomadic life in which he and his wife will ‘discover’ themselves and their country. It embraces and lambasts all of the bullshit which came with that generation. The hypocrisy of the dual pursuit of material wealth and spirituality. All is going well for the couple when, a couple of days into their journey, his wife blows their entire ‘nest egg’ (and the way Brooks just says ‘nest egg’ throughout the film cracks me up every time) in a Las Vegas casino and renders them genuinely impoverished, nomadic and forced to confront what is really important. The answer to which is as wryly cynical as it should be.
DEFENDING YOUR LIFE (1991)
This is really Brooks’ masterpiece. A film unexpectedly high in concept and with surprisingly large production values set, as it is, in Judgement City a bureaucratic afterlife processing area. This is conceptually some kind of Woody Allen/Terry Gilliam/Frank Capra mash-up and, holy shit, if it’s not right up there as one of the boldest, oddest yet most perfect films I’ve ever seen. Brooks plays Daniel, very much the stroppy materialistic continuation of his character David from Lost in America. Within minutes of meeting Daniel (suffering from an inferiority complex whilst picking his brand new sportscar up from the dealership when seeing it waiting for him parked next to a better one) we see him drive head-on into a bus and shift immediately from his mortal coil. He wakes up in Judgement City, a heavenly place landscaped to put the recently-dead Middle American at their ease, where he must attend a legal hearing in which a prosecution and defence will debate as to whether he should be reincarnated or whether he has learned enough in his time on earth to ‘move on’. At the centre of the film is this courtroom comedy in which both parties screen relevant moments from his life to the judges and Daniel is forced to… defend his life. This is Brooks at his most whimsical, there is a philosophical bent to it and a really touching romance at its core with Meryl Streep playing Julia a woman he falls for who represents not just someone he loves but everything he wishes he had been. It’s not as cynical as most of Brooks’ other films and although the humour remains dry, it’s a very sweet film. It has the appeal of those lush romantic comedies of the fifties. That rare thing, comfort viewing for people who aren’t idiots. Of his whole body of work, this is the film which truly deserves to have reached a far wider audience. Real Life deserves to be reassessed as a work of brilliance but it’s this film which should be considered a classic.
Perhaps one of the best things that Mother does, one of the great indications of Brooks’ intelligence is the casting of Debbie Reynolds. The film industry is so fickle that once a star’s brilliant youth has passed, the roles – particularly for women – dry up or force them into boring stereotypes. This beautiful two-hander sees Brooks play a man so wounded by his recent divorce that he decides to move in with his mother, convinced that if he can resolve his issues with her he’ll finally crack his problems with women and himself in general. Reynolds is at first introduced as comic foil but quickly displays depth and subtlety and, really, how she wasn’t even nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar for this one dumbfounds me. The film plays like a missing Neil Simon play and not since Psycho has the mother-son dynamic been so engagingly explored. Of course, there is plenty of broad comedy but, as had become trademark for Brooks by then, the cynicism is tempered with genuine heart. He’s never been afraid to play the fool but it would have been very easy to have made Reynolds the butt of the jokes, instead, as the film develops, it’s Brooks who is forced to understand and respect rather than excoriate and scapegoat.
THE MUSE (1999)
The Muse feels like Brooks’ angriest film. It’s the only one directly pitched at the L.A. film industry in which he has spent his career and it’s spiky with disenfranchisement and ire. Brooks plays Steven Phillips, an Oscar nominated screenwriter who finds himself being told by clueless executives that he has indefinably ‘lost his edge’, frustrated and at the end of his tether, a friend played by Jeff Bridges, tells him about someone who might be able to help. Sharon Stone plays Sarah – a beautiful woman who might or might not be a muse of myth and legend. She has certainly built up the reputation as such in Hollywood and Brooks finds himself fighting for her attention and power against the rest of the town (including fantastic cameos from Scorsese and James Cameron as themselves) as her demands become more lavish and her help more scant. This film has palpably less heart than his previous offerings and is not just cyncial but somewhat wound-licking too. Brooks works out his frustration on camera and, like whenever a funny man becomes angry, the film is all the better for it. Movie executives in this film are so beautifully lambasted that one thinks he must have hit the nail on the head as to their idiocy because somehow a handful of them must have allowed him to actually make this film which tears them so masterfully to shreds.
LOOKING FOR COMEDY IN THE MUSLIM WORLD (2005)
Brooks most recent film explored two fascinating, and seemingly unlinked, subjects; international diplomacy and the roots of comedy. His character is despatched to the Middle East by a presidential committee to prepare a report on the culture’s comedy in the hope that his findings could better enhance relations between the two nations. Removing Brooks from his usual L.A. backdrop is strangely unsettling. It made me realise that as New York is so important in Woody Allen’s films, L.A. is practically the other part of Brooks’ double-act. Obviously, there is a danger in portraying another culture with the gusto in which he usually lampoons his hometown but Brooks’ intent is never to mock any culture other than his own. It’s not as bold a film as the title suggests it might be but a return to the warm tone of a good-hearted schlub marching unwittingly out of his depth yet protected by his genuine nature.
Brooks has been writing, directing and starring in his own films for 34 years now, he has created a solid body of work which displays a unique and idiosyncratic style complemented by a very sophisticated yet accessible humour of great intelligence and profound warmth. I think in America he is rightly seen as a great talent but there is no reason why his reputation has never transferred to the UK. I first saw Defending Your Life in the mid-90s and had to work hard in those pre-Amazon, pre-IMDB days to track down his films on NTSC VHS. He has been my favourite film-maker since then. In these non-carb days, his films are my mashed potato and my Ben & Jerrys. He is the solution to a grey day. He’s the guy who shows us that, yes, everything is shitty, nothing makes sense, so let’s hold that awfulness up for ridicule and just laugh at it and laugh at ourselves because there’s not much you can do and laughing always – always – makes you feel better.