Tag Archives: james l. brooks

Is Albert Brooks a Genius?

I’ve been thinking about Albert Brooks since he told The New York Times he has a novel in the works – his first. Days later, I’m certain Albert Brooks is the most underrated Brooks in show business history. Richard Brooks is the most overrated.

Mel and James L. have been given their kudos, but Albert, somehow, has been passed over. How to explain this? The law of averages, I think. Brooks has directed only seven films, and he’s missed as many times as he’s hit. There’s really no mediocrity to be found in Real Life, Modern Romance, Lost in America, Defending Your Life, Mother, The Muse, or Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World; they’re either crisply brilliant, full of clear, persuasive satire – or they thud. Perhaps this is why he’s scored an undeserved zero in the cultural impact department.

But they scales ought to be tipped in his favor. Real Life, his debut feature of 1979, is unacknowledged parent of the (now-tired) relay of media-savvy, wink-to-the-camera mockumentaries, the sort we like to trace back to This is Spinal Tap. While its true the genre has been around for longer than that – I think Bunuel hit on it the earliest, in 1933, with Las Hurdes: Tierra sin Pan – it’s only in the last decade that our interest in observing what the camera does to innocent people has hit its satirical stride (i.e. “The Daily Show,” “The Office,” and reality television). And it was Albert Brooks, not Christopher Guest, who saw it coming.

But more than simply being there first, Real Life said it best. With its combination of witty, “bad filmmaking” camera jokes (consistently subtle enough to come across as credible), and its patient, slow burn handle on psychological deterioration, Brooks’s movie is a comic amalgam of The Truman Show and Network. It’s obvious, watching the film, that Albert Brooks has watched a lot of television and a lot of people.

Have I mentioned Brooks has the leading role? Well, he does, and he’s dazzling in it, even more dazzling than he was in Broadcast News, a performance that earned him an Oscar nomination in 1987. Playing “Albert Brooks,” Albert Brooks, in Real Life, constructs one of the shrewdest self-parodies I’ve ever seen. And not the ironic self-parody – the one that actually congratulates the actor for having a sense of humor about himself – I’m talking about the one that levels the distinction between performer and performance. Unlike many actors-playing-themselves, Brooks invests so much intensity into his screen-self that it becomes almost impossible not to believe you’re watching the real Albert Brooks too. And in a film about manufacturing reality, that’s an essential – and indeed courageous – line to blur. Now that is spinal tap.

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Out and About with James L. Brooks

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.

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