Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: a guide to the deconstructive comic genius of writer/director/actor/author Albert Brooks.
Albert Brooks 101: The writer/director
With his frighteningly prescient 1979 debut comedy Real Life, Albert Brooks anticipated both the rise of the ego-driven documentary and the blight of reality television. Though loosely inspired by the travails of the Loud Family, the stars of the controversial PBS documentary series An American Family, the film’s primary satirical subject is the unbearable narcissism of the quintessential show-business phony. In Real Life, Brooks’ pompous filmmaker (as in his Saturday Night Live shorts, covered below, Brooks here ostensibly plays himself) sets out to make a movie about the typical American family in a naked bid to win fame and adulation. But Brooks’ curiosity about the lives of common people can’t compare with his fascination with himself.
Brooks’ self-aggrandizing interloper doesn’t want a camera to explore the melodrama of the typical American family; he wants a mirror. His arrogance and alienation from other people render him borderline monstrous. Real Life dissects the angst of the modern American family and the monstrousness of megalomania with almost Kubrickian detachment: The film begins dark, then grows darker until it’s grown almost apocalyptic. A scene where veterinarian Charles Grodin freaks out after losing a horse on the operating table pushes the comedy of awkwardness and discomfort to almost unbearable extremes.
Brooks—who co-wrote the script with longtime writing-partner Monica Johnson and future Simpsons fixture Harry Shearer—makes no attempt to render his character sympathetic, yet Real Life delights in his showboating tendencies all the same, whether he’s subjecting an ostensibly serious meeting to an extravagant song or donning a clown costume to cheer up the despondent couple he’s filming. That’s the duality of Brooks’ shtick: His films are both a scathing satire and a celebration of narcissism. Brooks’ characters often find themselves endlessly fascinating and wildly entertaining—and because they’re played by Brooks, they’re usually right.
From his early years picking apart the various forms of hacky stand-up comedy, Brooks’ instinct has always been to deconstruct and reexamine convention. With his 1981 masterpiece Modern Romance, Brooks bends the happy-making arc of a typical romantic comedy, starting with a breakup and then following the same couple through an excruciating on-again/off-again partnership that dooms both to co-dependent misery. It’s the sort of situation that plays out constantly in real life and almost never in the movies, and Brooks fuels his progressively darkening comedy on jealousy, obsession, and the unhealthy emotional bonds that link two people who otherwise have nothing in common. It’s also, almost incidentally, the funniest movie ever made about making movies.
Playing his signature self-loathing neurotic to the hilt, Brooks stars as an editor who divides his time between cutting a dismal-looking science-fiction movie starring George Kennedy and stalking his banker ex-girlfriend (Kathryn Harrold), whose beauty is transfixing enough to make him forget how little he cares about anything she has to say. Together, they’re a disaster, but the thought of her with another man drives him crazy; in many ways, Modern Romance is the comedic flipside of Raging Bull from the year before; the only difference between Brooks’ character and Jake LaMotta is that Brooks uses passive-aggression instead of his fists. (Sample line, when Harrold steps out in a blouse he finds too revealing: “There are men out there who only rape. That’s all they do.”) Though the film wisely sweetens its pessimistic tone with the uproarious movie-in-a-movie hijinks—and one terrific scene with Brooks’ brother Bob Einstein (best known as “Super Dave” Osborne) as an athletic-store clerk—it’s an uncompromising look at the uglier side of love, the one that most movies deny exists.
The caustic tone of Brooks’ early screen comedies continued with 1985’s Lost In America, a road movie about a married couple that tries to bridge the chasm between the liberated idealism of their ’60s youth—when they dreamed of seeing America and “touching Indians”—with the yuppie sellouts they’ve become. From the start, their misadventures are triggered less by an honest desire to drop out of society than by Brooks’ character’s disillusionment at being passed over for a big promotion. (The scene where he quits his job in a huff is a particular jewel in the Brooks canon: “I’ve seen the future. It’s a bald-headed man from New York!”) Though he and his wife (Julie Hagerty) liquidate their assets, they don’t sacrifice their creature comforts: They buy a luxury Winnebago, keep their remaining riches in a “nest egg,” and spend their first night not camping under the stars, but lodged in a hotel room in Las Vegas, a monument to the capitalist excesses they’re ostensibly fleeing.
When Hagerty blows the nest egg on a gambling spree—leading to another canonical scene, featuring Garry Marshall as a casino manager—Lost In America treats its characters to the real humility of living on the dole, and any romantic notions of recreating Easy Rider are brutally dispelled. Brooks ekes comedy from the sad spectacle of a well-to-do ad man expecting entitlements that aren’t forthcoming, as when he looks for a high-paying white-collar job in a small-town employment office, and comes away a part-time crossing guard. As with his first two films, Lost In America is relentlessly self-deprecating: Brooks doesn’t extend one iota of sympathy to his own character, who represents an entire generation that gave up Woodstock for Madison Avenue.
Never the most prolific filmmaker, Brooks took a six-year break between Lost In America and 1991’s Defending Your Life, and his perspective seemed to shift in the interim. Gone was the lacerating social critic of his first three films, replaced by a far more generous and gentle-humored Brooks that appears to bear little resemblance to his former self. He even believes in love, sincerely and passionately: His afterlife romance with an effervescent Meryl Streep is more emotional (and more adult) than most modern rom-coms ever allow themselves to be. Yet Brooks’ conceptual brilliance comes through in his imagining of a celestial way station where the recently dead are judged for how they lived their lives: Depending on how the trial goes, they’re either moved forward to higher destinations in the universe or kicked back to earth to try again. In between sessions, they can enjoy the many amenities Judgment City has to offer, including three championship golf courses, the “Past Lives Pavilion,” and all the transcendently delicious food they can eat.
The judgment in Judgment City is not moral or religious in nature: There is no hell (“though I hear Los Angeles is getting pretty close,” quips Brooks’ lawyer, played by Rip Torn) or single omniscient entity in charge. Instead, Defending Your Life reveals Brooks’ hard-won philosophy over how we should conduct our lives on earth—with generosity and courage, and without the sort of paralyzing fear that holds back virtually every character Brooks has ever played on screen. He also helped alter the course of Streep’s career: Before Defending Your Life, Streep’s reputation for high seriousness (and a related facility for accents) forbade the public from discovering what a bright, appealing actress she could be when playing it relaxed and naturalistic. Of course Brooks’ character falls in love with her—who wouldn’t?
Though Brooks has never quite matched the ambition or achievement of his first four features, the pleasures and insight of a comedy like 1996’s Mother are deceptively low-key. Casting an immensely winning Debbie Reynolds as the eponymous character, Brooks again stars, this time as a science-fiction writer whose second divorce prompts him to retreat to his childhood home and try to figure out where his life went wrong. His “experiment” baffles his mother, who’s perfectly content as an empty-nester and can’t bring herself to understand, much less explain, why her grown son has moved back in. Incredibly, Brooks finds his answer—and it’s a gratifyingly difficult one—linked to his mother’s own parallel ambitions for her life and the simmering regret that poisons their relationship, and getting it involves a degree of cruelty toward her that few actors other than Brooks would ever risk. Still, to lighten the mood, there are plenty of delightful jokes about the mother’s eccentricities, many of them food-related (like the “protective layer of ice,” i.e. freezer-burn, covering a carton of ice cream), and the chemistry between Brooks and Reynolds is adorably frisky.
If anyone is qualified to resurrect the perpetually moribund genre of the Hollywood satire, it would seem to be Brooks. Brooks is a creature of the industry, the son of dialect comedian Harry Einstein, who died just after a killer set at a Friar’s Club roast, the ultimate show business death. As a stand-up comedian, Brooks delighted in deconstructing the ridiculous trappings of show business, yet with 1999’s The Muse, even he was ultimately defeated by a well-worn subgenre that seems to have been sucked dry at this point.
The Muse casts Brooks as a floundering screenwriter who gets a new lease on life when a real-life muse (Sharon Stone) enters his life. The role was hyped as a comedy breakthrough for Stone, who was predictably convincing as a self-absorbed narcissist, but otherwise took the fun out of what is far and away Brooks’ weakest film. Even Brooks struggled to transcend the cliché and conventions of the Hollywood satire. The problem with occupying a higher evolutionary sphere than your contemporaries is that people understandably hold you to a much higher standard; by that yardstick, The Muse stands as the only skippable movie in Brooks’ oeuvre.
The world was a much different place in 2006 than in 1978. It was, in many ways, the 1978 Brooks predicted in Real Life, a hyper-public, attention-crazed place where everyone’s a star and the line between real life and entertainment grows fuzzier every day. So when Brooks returned to filmmaking with the provocatively titled Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World, he expanded his horizons to encompass cultural colonialism and international politics.
Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World feels like a sequel to Real Life. It finds Brooks once again playing himself, this time as a struggling middle-aged actor and filmmaker who accepts a questionable gig as a comic ambassador to the Muslim world (in a neat bit of stunt casting, Fred Thompson, also playing himself, gives Brooks the assignment), partly out of boredom and professional ennui and partly out of a grossly exaggerated sense of his own importance.
Brooks is ostensibly out to see what makes Muslims laugh as a way of bringing cultures closer, but it quickly becomes apparent that his character is less interested in listening than in talking. His cultural curiosity extends only to wondering whether Muslims find him funny, so he treats his ramble through Islamic countries less like an important diplomatic mission than an unusual focus group. Despite its title, Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World is nowhere near as biting or dark as Real Life; Brooks is more interested in lampooning American self-absorption and megalomania than in wading into the deep, tricky waters of American-Islamic politics. The result is a widely misunderstood film that feels more genial than scathing.
Intermediate: The actor
It’s a testament to Brooks’ talent that the creative staff of The Simpsons, which at its peak had one of the greatest writing staffs in the history of television, let him improvise when he guest stars, playing characters ranging from bowling-alley lothario Jacques to Hank Scorpio, Homer’s ideal new boss who’s also, unfortunately, something of a Bond-movie super-villain. The Simpsons trusts Brooks’ comic instincts enough to give him free reign. He doesn’t just do voices; he creates characters in the moment that have gone on to occupy beloved places in the hearts of Simpsons fans, even if they’ve only factored into a few episodes.
Brooks earned his only Oscar nomination for his supporting role as a beleaguered, lovesick reporter in James L. Brooks’ fine 1987 drama Broadcast News, ultimately losing to Sean Connery in The Untouchables. He was robbed: As a substantive journalist who watches his closest friend and ally, a network news producer played by Holly Hunter, get seduced by a shallow anchorman (William Hurt), Brooks gives the film its romantic soul—not to mention many of its sharpest lines. And while Brooks’ character represents the noble, dying practice of credible broadcast journalism, Brooks doesn’t soften up the pettiness and jealousy that motivates some of his actions. He’s prickly and self-righteous at times—and his romantic rival, in turn, is as well-meaning and appealing as he is vacant—but Brooks perfectly captures the bruised spirit of a man whose life and career fail to meet his expectations.
Seven years later, James L. Brooks again turned to his friend Albert for a small role in the calamitous musical comedy I’ll Do Anything. The film itself didn’t amount to much: Stripped of the musical numbers, it lost not only coherence, but its very reason for being, and the chemistry between Nick Nolte’s single father and his overly precocious, wannabe actress daughter never materialized. Yet Brooks’ take on a crass Joel Silver-type movie producer is the lone bright spot, far subtler than Tom Cruise’s profane oaf in Tropic Thunder and no less devastating, with a Brooksian romantic neediness that humanizes a character who might have been mere caricature.
When is an Albert Brooks movie not an Albert Brooks movie? When it’s co-written by Brooks, but directed by Michael Ritchie. That’s the case with the deeply flawed, often wonderful 1994 baseball comedy-drama The Scout. If the film had devoted its running time to Brooks’ cantankerous scout wandering around some of the less chichi elements of the Mexican semi-professional baseball world, it would rank with Lost In America and Real Life as one of Brooks’ best.
The scenes of Brooks acclimating his dyspeptic self to the wild west of Mexican baseball are hilarious and freewheeling. Alas, the film soon assumes the form of a buddy comedy-drama, pairing Brooks with protégé/find Brendan Fraser, a preternaturally gifted but deeply disturbed and emotionally stunted pitcher. The Scout is two-thirds of a terrific film. Brooks and Fraser have surprisingly strong chemistry and the script bears many traces of Brooks’ wit, but the film ultimately falls apart hard in its dreadful third act.
Brooks’ talents as a voice artist were already plain in The Simpsons, but as a clownfish searching for his missing son in Pixar’s Finding Nemo, he’s able to exhibit the range of his abilities as a comedian and a dramatic actor. Being a clownfish, Brooks’ Marlin is expected by the other sea creatures to be a funny guy, and he tries his best to accommodate them, even though he doesn’t know any good jokes and his comic timing would be too stilted to deliver them anyway. When Marlin tries to entertain, the result is a calamity that plays like Brooks’ early years as a stand-up deconstructionist, producing comedy by utterly dismantling hacky gags. Yet Finding Nemo requires emotional beats, too, and Marlin’s pleas for his son in the open waters are, in Brooks’ cadence, piercing and true.
In Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World, Brooks goes on a somewhat baffling audition to star in a remake of Harvey. It’s not too much of a stretch to interpret the scene as a thinly veiled dig at 2003’s The In-Laws, a listless remake that Brooks has frequently mocked in the years since its release. Brooks has never been a conventional box-office draw, yet he slides easily enough into the Alan Arkin role in a slick and often desperate reworking of the 1979 cult favorite. Brooks doesn’t take many starring roles in films he doesn’t write, but he almost single-handedly elevates The In-Laws to the level of shiny mediocrity.
Over the years, Brooks has made a vivid impression in a number of smaller roles that seem to be more tightly curated than the catchall résumés of other, more prolific character actors. As immediate evidence, his first screen appearance was in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, where he plays a romantic rival to a sociopath and still doesn’t get the girl. As an ineffectual campaign worker who pines for a co-worker, played by Cybill Shepherd, Brooks provides some much-needed comic levity while also contrasting sharply with Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle, whose directness proves more appealing to Shepherd’s character than Brooks’ wit. Other strong supporting parts include Brooks’ appearance alongside Dan Aykroyd in the funny/scary prologue to 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie; a great turn in Steven Soderbergh’s Out Of Sight as a spineless white-collar criminal in the Michael Milken vein whose mansion becomes a crime scene; and a standout role as a bad guy in the upcoming Nicolas Winding Refn thriller Drive. (Reporting from Cannes, our own Mike D’Angelo called Brooks’ performance “one of the greatest against-type casting coups in recent memory.”) He also put in a season on Showtime’s Weeds as Mary Louise-Parker’s estranged father-in-law and co-starred opposite a gothed-up Leelee Sobieski in My First Mister.
Advanced: Essential miscellany
Saturday Night Live could very well have been The Albert Brooks Show. According to Saturday Night Live lore, producer Lorne Michaels offered to make Brooks the show’s permanent host in the early stages of its planning, but Brooks declined in favor of contributing short films that afforded him a fast-and-dirty education in filmmaking. It was a move indicative of the strange place Brooks occupies in the show-business hierarchy; his short films were often the most brilliant parts of Saturday Night Live’s first season, yet Brooks is never associated with the show the way guests like Steve Martin and Buck Henry are.
On Saturday Night Live’s first season, Brooks occupied his own strange little comic kingdom apart from the rest of the gang at 30 Rock. His highly conceptual short films—one is an extravagant apology for not being able to turn in a short film that week due to sickness—had more absurd and cerebral tone than the rest of the show, even at its smartest. Brooks is never afraid to talk up to his audience; Saturday Night Live played directly to its core audience of teenaged stoners. So perhaps it’s best that Brooks’ stint at Saturday Night Live was short-lived but brilliant and wildly influential, with great satirical bits on NBC’s mid-season replacements (our favorite: Black Vet, a show about a black Vietnam vet turned Deep South veterinarian) and a special school for aspiring comedians. Teenagers in 1976 may not have known what the square guy with the curly hair and the overly ingratiating manner was doing, but students of comedy understood they were watching the beginning of a quietly revolutionary career that would force us to rethink some of our most basic assumptions about the nature of comedy and entertainment.
Brooks’ impulse to pick apart the craft of comedy and repurpose it for laughs made him a legend on the talk-show circuit, where he’d roll out brilliant conceptual bits on impressionists and ventriloquists, and present himself as a sweaty, neurotic shambles of a stand-up comedian. You’d be hard-pressed to find a clip of Johnny Carson laughing harder than when Brooks used a hot potato and pepper to pull off impressions of Burt Lancaster and Curly from The Three Stooges. He also wowed Ed Sullivan and other hosts with Dave-and-Danny, the “world’s worst ventriloquist” act, and a take on improvisational comedy that involved winnowing requests from the audience into canned ad-libs. (Brooks would trot out some of these ancient routines for an uncomprehending Indian crowd in Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World.)
Brooks only recorded two comedy albums, but he sought to reinvent that form, too: Long before the current age of unbridled file-sharing, his 1973 record Comedy Minus One ended with a routine that could only be completed by listeners reading off a script in the liner notes—thus rendering those without a physical copy useless. Other bits are just straight-up funny, including a recollection of opening for Richie Havens in a hostile, sweltering Houston sports arena and a rewrite of the National Anthem. (His long out-of-print, Grammy-nominated follow-up, 1975’s A Star Is Bought, is a lot harder to track down.)
Brooks can be maddeningly non-prolific, so thankfully his publisher “gently encouraged” (and by “gently encouraged” we of course mean, “forced”) Brooks to hop onboard Twitter to promote his new book and, to a lesser extent, join the rest of the 21st century. Sure enough, Twitter has proven a great medium for Brooks’ bite-sized wit, whether he’s sadly lamenting, “Tweeting on Saturday night is a little sad. I’m going to sign off and make some prank phone calls” or trying to get Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber to re-Tweet plugs for his book, he’s getting into the self-promotional spirit with the zeal of a convert.
As for the book itself, 2030: The Real Story Of What Happens To America, what might sound like Celebrity Huffington Post Column: The Book turns out to be a thoughtful piece of alarmist fiction, as rigorously imagined in its pessimistic vision of the future as Defending Your Life was of the afterlife. Though Brooks offers some whimsical ideas about the wonders of the future—lifelike robot companions are common, including a freakishly true-to-life Abraham Lincoln robot that greets select White House visitors—what’s striking about 2030 is its plausibility. With America’s debt in excess of its GDP and a cancer cure extending the lives of the elderly, the government has no resources to solve its problems; when “The Big One,” a 9.1 earthquake, shatters Southern California, it’s a humanitarian crisis that can’t be afforded. Brooks digs into some troubling issues, including the extreme (and not unfounded) hostility of the younger generation toward “the olds” and the delicate topic of euthanasia, but a mordant sense of humor pokes through on occasion. His book is an unexpected turn in a career full of them, and a fresh sign of creative life.
1. Modern Romance (1981)
Leave it to Albert Brooks to make the ultimate anti-romantic comedy. Brooks' 1981 exploration of romantic angst feels nothing like a conventional romantic comedy and unnervingly like the excruciating awkwardness of real life. Speaking of…
2. Real Life (1979)
Long before reality television as we know it was even conceived, Brooks’ debut feature picked apart its voyeurism and invasiveness, and the quotation marks that would have to frame TV’s notion of “reality.” It also established the “Albert Brooks” character, a merciless profile in egotism and self-loathing.
3. Saturday Night Live shorts (1975-1976)
Though the six Brooks short films scattered throughout SNL’s first season felt shoehorned into the show’s live-sketch concept, they’re all brilliantly funny, from a cutting parody of inane TV formulas and gimmicks (Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman, performed entirely by children!) to a short about Brooks being too ill to turn in a short.
4. Lost In America (1985)
The road movie would never be the same after Albert Brooks and Julie Hagerty embarked on an epic quest to “touch Indians” and found themselves on the open road. Lost In America is equally potent as a satire of the road movie and of the American dream of endless mobility and escape.
5. Defending Your Life (1991)
In a preview of his later efforts as a sci-fi novelist, Albert Brooks let his imagination run wild, conceiving an afterlife where people confront their fears, regrets, and anxieties in a celestial courtroom.