Tag Archives: something’s gotta give

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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Twilights

Warner Bros. head Alan Horn has announced that he plans to follow the Harry Potter movies with more comic book movies. “As we ease out of Harry Potter,” he said, “we hope to bring you the excitement of the DC [comics] Library!” He also announced these pictures will be released in 3D. All of them.

It’s only a matter of time before the other studios follow, and the already widened gap between tentpole films and whatever they call the dying breed – let’s say, sideshow films – is widened even further. In time, expensive technologies like 3D, no matter how beautifully employed, will invariably draw asunder the once-valued populist precepts of glamour, wit, and personality. The reason why is simple: 3D is as fit to convey these invisible qualities as 2D is to contain those of Avatar. To those of us who still had a dream of Hollywood quality, this is indeed unfortunate.

Of course many will be unfazed, or at least claim to be, but how will the creative people of vision and virtue justify their endeavors now? Last night, at Genghis Cohen, my favorite Chinese restaurant, friends of mine, quoting a friend of theirs, said, “To have hope for integrity in show business, one must become delusionally optimistic.” But that was last night. After this news, I would revise that statement to read, “To have hope for integrity in show business, one must become delusional.”

Soon studio pictures will be separated into two genres: boy and girl. Fires & Farts and Clothes & Crushes.

How will grown-up people spend their evenings? You would think Hollywood would be eager to answer that question, for as my field research has proven, there seem to be many older individuals out there wandering around in suede jackets. In fact, just yesterday I saw at least seven balding men at Genghis Cohen alone. Seven! Multiply that by the number of Chinese restaurants in town, or the country, then double it (for wives and girlfriends), and there you have just a sliver of the new paying audience. It may not account for the number of older people who stay home, or those at other restaurants unfriendly to shrimp in lobster sauce, but that’s no excuse. I saw them. They’re out there. I promise millions to the executive who thinks on their entertainment needs.

Unfortunately, as the recent Oscar ceremony confirmed, Hollywood’s interests are as far from producing grown-up product as they’ve ever been. Even Nancy Meyers, who has an ostensible claim to restoring adulthood to the screen, fails, time and again, when it comes to treating her characters as actual people in midlife. Her women cry and pout and moan and take baths; they are, in short, a longer-in-tooth product of genre two, Clothes & Crushes. So you see, even when Hollywood tries to “grow up,” it still must have two feet firmly planted in Dean & Deluca.

Let’s stay with Meryl for a moment. Consider Julie & Julia. Grown up fare? Well, yes and no. Yes: to see Meryl and Tucci, as Mrs. & Mr. Child, so completely revel in each other’s pleasure, culinary and otherwise, was absolutely a moment of hope for the Chinese restaurateurians among us. There we saw a relationship. It was stunning. No: Amy Adams.

We can read Meryl’s recent run of fluffier films since The Devil Wears Prada as sign of a major actress growing her palette, or, in light of the state of Hollywood film, as an if-you-can’t-beat-em-join-em play for the audience that really matters the most – the kids.

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