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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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