In the hierarchy of significance in what made news this past week, the sudden availability of the entirety of Albert Brooks’ output of feature films as a writer-director via Netflix Streaming may not carry the urgency of, say, the alarming continuance of African-American deaths under police fire, the attack on a peaceful protest against police violence by shooters who killed five law enforcement officers and wounded several more in Dallas, the ongoing partisan bloviating inspired by the FBI’s decision to not charge Hilary Clinton with federal crimes, or the frightening clown circus of offenses that characterizes the dawning of each new day in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. But art can, among many other things, provide a momentary respite from pain, sometimes even while examining some of the more frustrating, self-centric and petty dissonances within our own, or someone’s else’s worldview, and in this Brooks’ films at their best might just be the most unexpected sort of tonic during this weird, desperate and uneasy moment.
That may sound like a strange premise, and as I’m typing this I’m still not entirely convinced that it’s not at least a somewhat facile one. I don’t mean to suggest that Brooks’ films offer some sort of heretofore unexhumed sociopolitical element that, when generously applied, might somehow provide the balm for a society which seems to be intent on tearing itself apart. But in that their subject matter, film to film, is concerned largely with the surgical examination of a persona (that of “Albert Brooks”) whose towering self-absorption is matched only by his inability to see past his own nose, or to appreciate the presence of others (to say nothing of the “other”) only as they orbit and effect his world, there’s probably some satirical value to be gleaned by a potential audience whose insulation increases as our Facebook pages increasingly become our most significant connection to the world around us.
Oh, and let’s not forget the old bromide about laughter being the best medicine. Albert Brooks’ movies are still some of the most fearlessly hilarious movies you will likely ever see. And if for some reason you have not as yet indulged yourself—if, for some reason, you know Brooks’ great, Oscar-nominated work as an actor in Broadcast News, or in movies as diverse as Finding Nemo, Taxi Driver, Out of Sight and Drive, but are ignorant of his brilliant stand-up comedy or the great shorts he directed for Saturday Night Live, from which his feature work naturally evolved—then the bounty made available by Netflix will be an even bigger treat. Among the seven movies Brooks has directed to date, there are three bona fide masterpieces, maybe four, and three others that don’t measure up to those heights but still bear the pleasurable evidence of a unique comic genius at work. That’s a pretty good batting average. And regarding the ones that fall short, a friend talking to me about Brooks recently said it best: if only other great director’s worst movies were as good as Albert Brooks’ “duds.”
After a series of short films, one made for PBS and the majority for the first incarnation of Saturday Night Live, Brooks took his persona and his poker-faced visual style, which seemed to emerge fully formed from the beginning, and applied it to his first feature. That feature, Real Life (1979), is a scathing satire of directorial hubris built around a parody of the 1971 PBS series An American Family, now considered the first reality TV series, which was originally intended to document the daily life of a Santa Barbara family, the Louds. Instead, it ended up chronicling the breakup of that family through separation and divorce, as well as becoming (and this is the part that really interests Brooks) a furious seminar in media literacy when the Louds later claimed the series, culled down from 300-plus hours of footage, had been edited to emphasize the dysfunction— the disruptive influence of the camera’s presence already having been made clear.
Brooks structures his movie as a similar familial chronicle, but the on-screen “Albert Brooks,” a nightmarishly neurotic and venally self-absorbed filmmaker who very much resembles the man in Brooks’ short films, is clearly more interested in documenting his own invasion of the lives of his subjects than the people themselves, and he’s only vaguely aware of the ways in which the truth he’s ostensibly seeking is being altered by his crass mauling of documentary license. Real Life handily skewers a movement in cinéma vérité which gets crossed up with the most wrongheaded indulgences of personality cults and first-person gonzo journalism, and it may have proved to be even more chilling in its prescience than Network. Brooks literally burns down the family’s house in order to provide a spectacular finish for his documentary, but of course that fire has long since moved from his metaphor to our Kardashian-infused reality, a TV landscape in which the director is less likely to disrupt his subjects than be absorbed by them.
For me, Real Life is Brooks at his purest, certainly the movie in which his persona and his concerns are most acutely integrated with the consistently surprising wit and meaning of his long takes and otherwise deadpan visual style. But it’s entirely possible that his follow-up, Modern Romance (1981), cuts even deeper-- this is the rom-com from which Matthew McConnaughey, Kate Hudson and all their legions of fans will run screaming. Here Brooks is Robert Cole, a film editor assembling a cheapjack space epic starring George Kennedy, and his work provides just one of the many roadblocks in his relationship with his preternaturally patient girlfriend Mary (Kathryn Harrold), most of them self-generated, of course. Robert is petty and conceited, and also irrationally jealous, but what makes Modern Romance resonate beyond the squirm-inducing limits of Robert’s self-destructive behavior is the way it explicitly ties up the concept of modern romance with that of codependency—this couple’s pattern of break-up and reunion, followed by another break-up which immediately inspires Robert’s desperate yearning for the way things were (that is to say, the way they never were), sends out queasy vibrations long past its ending, which itself suggests these two are tangled in a self-perpetuating web from which they may never escape.
And if David and Linda Howard, the yuppie couple at the heart of Brooks’ Lost in America (1985), can be considered Robert and Mary’s logical, if not literal extensions, then escape is a fantasy, but hardly an option. At the beginning of this brutally incisive comedy, David impulsively quits his high-paying advertising job, the Howards liquidate their “nest egg” assets, buy a Winnebago and set out to find America and themselves, a journey which David frames as their own wrinkle on Easy Rider—itself a counterculture time capsule which probably holds up better as the sort of inspirational fantasy for which David uses it than as actual life strategy. During a Vegas stopover, Linda lets loose her pent-up rage toward David and gambles away all their money, which sets the couple on a course of savings-deprived self-discovery neither had anticipated.
But the lessons learned by David and Linda aren’t so much inspirational as they are rooted in self-preservation, specifically the preservation of the values in which their selves are inextricably entwined. Some have found the ending of Lost in America too easy, too abrupt—David jumps at the chance to grovel at the feet of the execs who he previously spurned in order to get his cushy job back. But a return to the comforts and support systems of home and (high-paying) employment were always where these two were headed, so the eagerness with which the film sets them back on that road seems genuinely earned. It certainly doesn’t feel like a betrayal of previously held counterculture values—David only ever pays lip service to the idea of setting off like Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, whose own nest egg David points out was secured by a big cocaine deal. One of the many remarkable things about Lost in America is the degree to which Brooks takes a torch to the lingering fantasies of his peers, and at a point on the cinematic timeline just after the popularity of The Big Chill, which came out two years earlier, had done so much to reanimate them. Thirty-one years later, Lost in America still has its finger on the pulse of what really cooled some members of a generation sparked by the energy of revolution, then hemmed in by the unforgiving economics of day-to-day survival.
I consider Real Life, Modern Romance and Lost in America genuine comic masterpieces, and Mother (1996) comes really close to that level too. If it’s a bit more conventionally conceived than his other pictures had been up to that point, Mother is still offers very sharply observed character comedy that doesn’t worry about whether or not Brooks and his frequent co-scenarist Monica Johnson have provided an entirely likable or even pleasant protagonist to build that comedy around. Here Brooks plays John Henderson, a science fiction novelist with a newly failed marriage behind him (his second) who figures that the best way to root out the issues with the women in his life, as well as those surrounding his blocked creativity, is to move back in with the one woman from whom the conflict seems to have sprung-- his mother, played by Debbie Reynolds. Reynolds, who hadn’t had a starring role in a movie since 1971’s What’s the Matter With Helen?, is the movie’s secret weapon—she’s so confident, so alert in her comic timing, her every gesture and indication of confusion and age-old annoyance with her son delivered with precision and a glancing touch that renders their 40-year relationship absolutely convincing. Outside of the director’s own presence in his movies, Reynolds delivers what has to be the best performance ever given in an Albert Brooks movie, and that she was virtually ignored during award season is simply unaccountable.
Mother plays like a crowd-pleaser, though in a distinctly Albert Brooks mode, and it’s a little pat in its conclusion. But Brooks and Johnson, and Reynolds, have to be given a huge amount of credit for everything that gets us to that conclusion which, too tidy or no, is still satisfying, and we manage to arrive there without enduring the more obvious pitches for audience acceptance that marked the otherwise agreeable, but in my memory second-tier, Defending Your Life (1991). (Of all the Brooks films now available on Netflix, I’m perhaps looking forward to revisiting this one, if only because so many smart people I know seem to hold it in much higher regard than I ever did. Plus, it’s got Lee Grant and Rip Torn in it.) The Muse (1999), probably the director’s weakest effort, feels like Brooks’ version of The Player—he’s a struggling Hollywood screenwriter, taking meetings and bumping shoulders with celebrities (Jennifer Tilly, James Cameron, Cybill Shepherd among them), who enlists the help of a muse (Sharon Stone)—who may be the incarnation of Zeus’ daughter— to help him get his career back on track. If the concept itself sounds a little more fanciful than the usual Albert Brooks affair, the fancy is compacted by the movie’s too-inside feel, which softens the edges of Brooks’ satirical framework in preparation for the strange sentimentality that the movie settles into. The Muse has its moments, but it’s the only Albert Brooks movie that feels indifferent and underimagined.
I missed Brooks’ last directorial effort to date, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, when it played (briefly) in theaters in 2005, catching up to it only last week courtesy of the current Netflix revival, and based on the largely negative reviews my expectations were certainly dialed in low. I remember mistakenly imagining upon its release that the movie might be some sort of sincere documentary investigation of what makes Muslims laugh, a sort of All Things Considered-tinged undertaking meant to foster understanding and goodwill and long-winded government reports, or perhaps even a more irreverently mounted inquiry along the lines of Bill Maher’s Religulous. So now, after having seen it, my only question remains: What the hell’s the matter with me?!
Brooks’ last movie is perhaps a little lighter on the “comedy ha-ha” than any of his Big Four, all movies which in their description might not sound funny at all-- my own accounts in this piece don’t exactly make Brooks’ pictures sound like laff riots, even though any random five minutes from any one of them contains more gut-busting comedy than, say, the entire Hangover trilogy. But LFCITMW remains true to Brooks’ raison d'être, that is, the filtering of a global concept—social perception, male-female relationships, generational delusion, parental reconciliation, and now cultural and religious tension—through the neurotic, narcissistic narrowcasting of the “Albert Brooks” persona.
For the first time since Real Life, Brooks plays Albert Brooks by name. Down on his luck in getting acting jobs—all that Pixar money apparently does nothing to assuage his wounded ego over being rejected for the new Penny Marshall movie—Brooks accepts an assignment from a government task force headed up by ex-Senator Fred Dalton Thompson to fly to a post-9/11 Middle East and, in the name of cross-cultural understanding, conduct a study on the apparently mysterious Muslim sense of humor. Brooks balks at the general tenor of the task, but even more so at the proposed 500-page report Thompson insists will be required at project’s end— he’s obsessed with the daunting idea of the report, to the exclusion of any attempt to construct an effective plan by which to even approach the business of inquiring about the Muslim funny bone, to say nothing of whether or not the question should even be broached in such a monolithic fashion.
The hopelessness of Brooks’ charge is indicated early on when it’s revealed that Thompson is sending Brooks, along with two bureaucratic aides (Jon Tenney and John Carroll Lynch), to New Delhi, India, with a planned side trip to Pakistan. New Delhi, it is noted, has a significant Islamic population, but its citizenry is primarily Hindi—it’s clear that Brooks hasn’t landed in Baghdad or Damascus or some other considerably hotter spot. Once Brooks decides that his best initial approach is a stand-up comedy show pitched at the Indian Islamic community, he spends an inordinate amount of time determining just who it is in the city’s teeming population that will comprise his ideal audience. The staged show turns out to be a classic Brooksian scenario of crossed wires, miscommunication and misunderstanding (based on a fundamental ignorance of and disinterest in Islamic culture), and it sends Brooks the would-be comedic diplomat into a frenzy of collapsing confidence and desperation.
A classic visual gag, in which Brooks and company argue the finer points of their strategy while the splendor of the Taj Mahal, which they’ve come to visit, goes ignored in the background of a beautiful tracking shot, recalls the unleashing of the Howards’ grievances toward each other in Lost in America on top of the Hoover Dam. As David and Linda vent, they are dwarfed by the setting, and as he does in the latter movie, Brooks proves Rick Blaine’s notion that the problems of (two) little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
The initial reception of Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World seems to suggest that the short-sighted presumptions of the Brooks character and the US government, which are perfectly in line with his compulsion to distill the complexities of a given situation down to the finer points of whatever it is that affects his world, were mistaken by the film's critics for the filmmaker’s actual point of view. Brooks the character goes along with the narrow, misidentified focus of the location of the Muslim comedy campaign because it’s the path of least resistance, no matter that it puts him in no real position to achieve the aim for which he initially set out. Strange, and very difficult to imagine then, that it was assumed by many upon the movie’s initial release that Brooks, the writer-director of LFCITMW, had also accepted that misinformation in apparently, and illogically, accepting “Albert Brooks’” self-absorbed methodology, or lack thereof, as his own.
What’s challenging and interesting about the movie, beyond whether or not it generates as many guffaws as previous Brooks pictures—it doesn’t, but it’s still pretty darn funny—is how willing it seems to weave a portrait of a society of Americans almost entirely, willfully ignorant of Muslim culture and the degree to which a steep learning curve should be rapidly undertaken. (No better time than this election year to get that campaign started.) Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World ends as most Brooks pictures do, Real Life being the significant, more disturbing exception-- with order somewhat restored and the Brooks character brought back into the cocoon of the world he knows, safe once again in a state of ignorance which promises no happiness or satisfaction, only relief from the immediate pressures by which the character has been previously taunted.
Perhaps we’re not as transparent in our neurotic selfishness as “Albert Brooks” is, but as we watch this Albert Brooks movie, and all the others that are now available on Netflix, the folly of that ignorance is there to register even as we appreciate a fearless, ruthless comic vision unique in American movies and laugh in confidence that an asshole such as the one Brooks conjures could never be us.