Where to begin with Albert Brooks

Ahead of his 75th birthday, we chart a path through the neurotic comedies and modern romances of Albert Brooks.

Defending Your Life (1991)Criterion

Why this might not be so easy

Albert Brooks had an unusual path to his directorial career. He started life in the public eye as a stand-up comedian, finding success on America’s late night talk show circuit. In 1972, Brooks made a comic short, The Famous Comedians School, for a satire programme on PBS. He later caught the eye of executives at NBC who were in the process of creating Saturday Night Live – they asked Brooks to be the permanent host. Brooks declined, but having enjoyed the process of making The Famous Comedians School, he offered them six more shorts that were later aired on the premiere season in 1975. He was now well and truly a filmmaker, just four years from his first feature. 

Albert Brooks making his film debut in Taxi Driver (1976)

In 1976, however, Brooks made his movie acting debut in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and for the next three decades, he would split his time between his own directorial career and roles in other people’s movies. Whoever was behind the camera, Brooks was a welcome presence in front of it; his most lauded appearance in a film he didn’t direct would be his supporting role in James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News (1987), for which he earned an Academy Award nomination.

As a Jewish comedian with a humorously neurotic persona who writes (often with Monica Johnson, before her death in 2010), directs and stars in his own films, it’s no surprise Brooks has often been labelled ‘The west coast Woody Allen’. But where Allen has always been prolific, Brooks has been more selective in his projects, only having directed seven features over the span of a quarter century (in the same period, Allen helmed 27). 

While Brooks has never officially retired from filmmaking, he’s not directed a movie since 2005’s Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World; instead, he’s spent the last 16 years solely focusing on his acting career. Whether or not he ever decides to pick up the camera again, his slight but impressive directorial filmography boasts many pleasures.  

The best place to start – Real Life

In his feature directorial debut, Real Life (1979) – which satirises documentary series An American Family (1973), widely considered to be America’s first reality show – Brooks immediately established himself as a crazed poet of the neurotic and a formidable font of creativity. Playing a comically exaggerated version of himself, Brooks lands in Arizona, intending to film an ordinary family over the course of a year. Enthusiasm for the project among all involved begins at a carnivalesque high, but it doesn’t take long for things to spiral out of control. 

Real Life (1979)

Albert Brooks didn’t invent reality TV, but he was among the earliest in mainstream entertainment to consider the ramifications of the nascent genre. Though some of his ideas are primarily wonderful silliness (the space helmet cameras the poor film crew wear are a constant source of hilarity), others are strikingly prescient. In a world that’s spent almost half a century living in the shadow of reality TV, Real Life’s exploration of how the process of being filmed subverts the nature of truth remains ever relevant. 

Real Life was also the cinematic introduction of the fully fledged ‘Albert Brooks’ persona. A bundle of neuroses cloaked in a gossamer sheet of cocksurity, the screen version of Brooks is equally capable of being charming and maddening. In this debut appearance, as we see in the spectacular finale, he is downright dangerous. 

What to watch next

Brooks’ other most conceptually creative movie is Defending Your Life (1991), which envisions a hereafter where the recently departed must explain moments from their time on Earth to a heavenly court. The court then decides if they’re allowed to progress on to the next level of existence, or must return to Earth and try again. Although there’s a schmaltziness to Brooks’ romance with co-star Meryl Streep that sits ill-at-ease with his usual persona, his conceit of the afterlife as a place just as bureaucratic as Earth (albeit with restaurants a lot more generous in their portion sizes) yields plenty of laughs – the legacy of that idea is easy to spot in The Good Place (2016 to 2020).

Modern Romance (1981)

You certainly couldn’t level any accusations of schmaltziness at Modern Romance (1981), which sees Brooks – this time playing a film editor – split up with his girlfriend, instantly regret his decision, and launch into a maniacal attempt to win her back, laden with his usual collection of hang-ups and complexes. A dark, deft character study, and an anti-romantic comedy (we really do not want this couple to get back together), Modern Romance also – in the scenes that follow Brooks at the edit suite – includes a big dose of the Hollywood satire that made Real Life so enjoyable.

In Lost in America (1985), Brooks plays a yuppie who, after a disappointment at his high-paying job, decides to pack it in altogether. He sells all of his and his wife’s (Julie Hagerty) assets and travels around the US with her in a Winnebago, continually espousing his dream that they live their lives like the renegades of Easy Rider (1969). Brooks’ third film pokes precise, painful fun at his fellow baby boomers and their desires to live wild lives while remaining comfortable in their corner offices, transferring the previously small scale of his filmmaking to the wider canvas of America.

Lost in America (1985)Criterion

Brooks is front and centre of all his directorial features except Mother (1996), where he shares the spotlight with Debbie Reynolds, whom he coaxed out of acting retirement to play the title role. After his second divorce, Brooks’ character (a writer) decides that moving back in with his mother will help him discover the root of his problems with women. She’s dubious, but agrees to ‘the experiment’, and the film that follows is perhaps Brooks’ softest, and yet most emotionally rewarding.

Where not to start

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (2005) sees ‘Albert Brooks’ (this was the first time Brooks played a character that bore his name since his debut in Real Life) sent on a diplomatic mission to India and Pakistan by the US government, to write a report on the comedic tastes of followers of Islam.

This most recent Brooks’ film was far from a disaster – considering the provocativeness of the title, it deftly sidesteps plenty of traps that might have felled a lazier filmmaker – it underscored a problem many found with his previous movie, The Muse (1999): he’s done it before, and he’s done it sharper and wittier. To paraphrase his east coast analogue, if you’re looking to explore Albert Brooks’ directorial work, you’re better off starting with his earlier, funnier ones. 

Lost in America and Defending Your Life are available on Blu-ray from Criterion.

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