It’s of enormous comfort to know that somewhere out there in this vast, hilly city of ours, probably between 26th Street and Doheny, James L. Brooks is puttering around in a shaggy windbreaker and sneakers, driving himself to Whole Foods, hopelessly scanning the shelves for a soy product he can’t find, and returning to his Prius more aggravated than when he left it. Yesterday’s piece in The New York Times made me think of him. Now I can’t stop.
If not Whole Foods, then maybe Starbucks, the one on Beverly south of Little Santa Monica. I can see James L. Brooks, modern master of what we call “dramedy,” aggravated to find himself at the very end of a long line of customers, pulling out his years-old Blackberry to check messages as he shuffles forward, struggling to download the picture of his ex-wife that his daughter accidentally emailed to him from their room at The Four Seasons Maui. Struggling all the way up to the counter, he finds himself face-to-face with the barista and forgets why he even came to Starbucks in the first place. Was it for coffee? He squints at the big menu. A blueberry muffin? But what about that piece he read in the New York Times, the one about the dangers of fructose? Overwhelmed – and angry with himself for letting such a small thing defeat him – James L. Brooks leaves Starbucks and gets back in his Prius. “Please enter your destination.” He thinks of his ex-wife and starts to cry. There’s fructose in everything.
You see, this is what makes James L. Brooks different than Nancy Meyers, who calls herself his acolyte. A look at Brooks’s second masterpiece, Terms of Endearment, and we remember that a dramedy is not simply a narrative form of alternating lights and darks. It’s not, “See Diane Keaton Laugh and then Cry.” It’s “See Shirley MacLaine in the Painful Joy of Life.” It’s “Isn’t it Funny The Way We Hurt Each Other and Get Hurt?” That’s why they call it dramedy, not drama-comedy.
James L. Brooks understands the distinction. As far back as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” we’ve seen him fuse rigorous emotional logic with warm, welcoming comedy, creating a genuine closeness between the audience and his characters. Unlike most contemporary comedies, when Brooks’s people are funny, it’s never at the expense of their humanness; in fact, it only enhances it. Think of Albert Brooks in Broadcast News. He’s given as many one-liners as a character in a sitcom, but they don’t come off as shtick because they express that frustrated, lacerating instinct that makes him such a clever journalist and such a difficult lover. Brooks is unafraid to let him get ugly, but no matter how unappealing he becomes, you love him. That’s what the comedy does, and it’s not calibrated for laughs, but to the needs and fears of the characters in question.
The opening moments of Terms of Endearment are just as full. In what may be her best performance, we see Shirley MacLaine obsessively keeping watch over her sleeping baby, expertly evincing comic beats from an otherwise panicked situation. Then, after the laugh – our laugh of recognition, of closeness – she checks on her baby again (a third time, I think) and with Brooks’s proper, adoring close-up we feel the sweetness beneath her worry. We know her, we love her, and the movie’s only just begun.
It gives me enormous comfort to know that somewhere out there, James L. Brooks is living his life – a life that, despite his millions of dollars, looks a lot like mine, and yours.