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Albert Brooks is about quality, not quantity

By Chris Herrington

AUGUST 30, 1999:  Albert Brooks, whose latest film, The Muse, opens this week, might be the finest American director of comedies since Preston Sturges in the 1940s. Yet even with a sizeable cult following, Brooks has never garnered the popular or critical recognition that his considerable talents demand. This predicament isn't without easily discernible reasons, however. Chief among them is that comedy has a hard time getting respect as "art," despite the obvious genius exhibited by film comedians from Buster Keaton to Jacques Tati to (yes, I am serious) Eddie Murphy. Another problem is that Albert Brooks is not prolific; The Muse is only the sixth feature of a directing career that began in 1979. Finally, in contrast to contemporary American comedies of all stripes, Brooks' work is subtle and relatively unassuming -- he demands an intelligent audience and respects his audiences' intelligence, but never panders to it.

These last two traits contrast strongly with the one practicing American comic director with absolutely no problems in the respect department, Brooks' alter ego Woody Allen. Brooks and Allen were dubbed by Chicago Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum the "Jewish film poets of American neurosis, ruling the West and East Coasts as if they were separate cultural fiefdoms." But where the L.A.-based Brooks has averaged four years between pictures over the course of his career, Allen, the consummate Manhattan denizen, has produced films over the same period at a clip of one per year. Allen also demands an intelligent audience, of course, but he fetishizes intelligence and bludgeons the audience with his own.

Where the class-bound Allen mostly engages in self-conscious art talk and highbrow branding, Brooks dares to confront (to borrow the title of his debut film) "real life" -- his films are filled with the unavoidable products of modern America, the gadgets and toys that feed our consumerism and the office buildings, supermarkets, and malls that dominate our landscapes. Most crucially, in Brooks' films, work is a real thing. We're watching the film that director Brooks is working on in Real Life (1979). In Modern Romance (1982), Brooks plays a film editor and we get to see the mediocre film he's working on. In Mother (1997), Brooks is a science fiction writer, and we learn about the content of his writing. With recent Woody Allen (who usually casts himself as a writer or academic of some sort), we only learn of his status (just guess) and his accoutrements (for instance, in Everyone Says I Love You, Allen is a famous writer but we don't know what he writes, only that he uses a manual typewriter), hardly ever of his actual work.

Albert Brooks is a director/writer/actor who produces high-concept comedies -- evident in titles that foreground their thematic concerns, Mother, Real Life, Modern Romance, etc. -- based in modern American anxiety, anxiety explicitly related to consumerism, status, comfort, and control (or lack thereof). Brooks plays moderately successful creative types, usually employed in film or advertising -- "Me Generation" Everymen burdened by their own expectations.

His first film, Real Life, was an extension of the short films he was then producing for Saturday Night Live. A mock-documentary parody of the PBS series An American Family, Brooks plays himself as a director engaged in an experiment -- filming the day-to-day life of a "typical" American family to see how the act of filming affects them. This notion of an "experiment" would become a predominant theme in Brooks' oeuvre, even if his subsequent films fit into a consistent formal and visual style that differs from Real Life.

All of Brooks' other films open with a crisis that shatters his character's sense of equilibrium and sets in motion a quest or experiment, sometimes harebrained, sometimes not even of the character's choosing, designed to restore order or explain weakness.

In Modern Romance and Mother, the crises are romantic and personal. In Modern Romance he breaks up with his girlfriend, Kathryn Harrold ("It's a no-win situation," he tells her. "No-win?" she asks. "Yes," he says, "You know, no-win. Like Vietnam? And us?") only to set in motion an obsessive pursuit of her that's as frighteningly pathetic as it is funny. In Mother a (second) divorce leads Brooks to move back in with his mother (Debbie Reynolds) in order to find the root of his problems with women.

Lost in America (1985) and Defending Your Life (1991), probably Brooks' two finest films, are a little different. Lost in America is one of the great Reagan-era films, surveying the oscillating comfort and terror of upper-middle-class life, and the dream of freedom -- a hilarious and heartfelt vision of boomer materialism colliding with Sixties nostalgia. Brooks' mid-level advertising exec quits his job in protest of a lateral transfer and he and his wife liquidate their assets and, inspired by Easy Rider, take a $140,000 nest egg and a fully loaded Winnebago to the road to "drop out," "find themselves," and "touch Indians." Brooks' character in Defending Your Life is similar to the one in Lost in America, an executive whose carefully cultivated comfort is taken away, only this time against his will. After plowing his brand new BMW into a bus, Brooks awakens in Judgment City, a sort of way station on the road to Heaven in which the newly deceased have to defend the quality of their lives to gain admittance or face returning to try again.

Brooks' talent as a writer and performer sometimes obscures what an assured filmmaker he's become. Where most American comedies today (think Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, the Farrelly Brothers) are rabidly over-the-top and cartoonish, Brooks' anti-sentimental, observational comedies stay grounded in real life even when dealing with fantastical material like Defending Your Life. Brooks uses a patient, deliberate visual style that favors medium shots and long scenes and that refuses to draw attention to itself. Brooks offers an insight into his cinematic strategy in a recent Film Comment interview, stating "I think I have a style I am very intent on -- I've always sort of imagined movies as people looking through a window. Sort of peeping in on the goings-on. So unless it's for a comedic effect, I don't make the camera the star."

Brooks' films are sparsely populated, mostly two-person plays with Brooks and a woman in strained or awkward domestic situations, and despite his status as the ultimate auteur of these films, Brooks doesn't privilege himself as a performer. His characters may be self-absorbed but his films are not. In contrast to the aforementioned Allen, Brooks doesn't create characters who serve to inspire or react to his one-liners. In later films he has paired himself with strong female performers whose status and/or acting chops threaten to dwarf him -- Meryl Streep as a lovely vision of human perfection in Defending Your Life and Debbie Reynolds and Sharon Stone as the title characters in Mother and The Muse, respectively. Reynolds' role and performance are especially inspired. It's a fully developed character instead of the one-note joke we've become accustomed to through the Saturday Night Live-vein of enhanced-sketch comedy, and Reynolds dives into it with relish -- a career-capping performance that probably deserved an Oscar.

Ultimately, Albert Brooks is never really cynical. Favoring multiple truths and multiple perspectives over a single viewpoint, Brooks spikes his incredibly sharp comedies with a welcome humanist streak. If only he made films more often.

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