September 16, 2009

More than just the dad fish in Nemo.

I place a lot of faith in Rob Turbovsky's opinions.

If you aren't familiar with him, here is a glamour shot of Rob:

He currently attends USC in some creative/film bullshit program that will probably enable a wonderful writing career at a formulaic CBS sitcom. But before he gets to all that, back in the good old days when we used to spend time together, he insisted I watch a movie by Albert Brooks called Real Life.

Now, I only knew Albert Brooks from his truly wonderful guest appearance on "The Simpsons" as Hank Scorpio and a book I had recently read called Comedy at the Edge, where numerous people insinuated that, even from childhood, he was the funniest person they had ever met. It turns out I also knew him as the father of Nemo in Finding Nemo, something I found less exciting because that's by far the shittiest recent Pixar movie.

But Real Life blew me away. Brooks, playing the director of a movie capturing a year of a family's life and a (hopefully) more egomaniacial version of himself, toys with the dynamics of capturing reality on film or screen long before it became wildly popular, and he adds onto the role his own personal twinge of manic desperation as a man starved for an odd mix of success and affection.

This set me off on an Albert Brooks binge. In the last three to four weeks I've watched Modern Romance, Lost in America, Defending Your Life and Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, along with about a half hour of Mother on HBO one afternoon. And while most of his movies didn't work as perfectly as Real Life, I was extremely impressed with the central ideas that powered each of them (besides Mother, that seemed like it was just about Debbie Reynolds).

Whether the theme is life, jealousy or the imbalances of post 9/11 America, Brooks approaches it from an interesting angle. I get the impression that people would have called him "subversive" back in his heyday, but, especially in Defending Your Life and Looking for Comedy, he loses his way far too often to make the kind of serious, overarching message that warrants such a classification.

In Defending, for example, the main idea seemed to be that Brooks' character still had a lot to learn about living without fear, which is presented as the most important trait of a successful human being. At the end, however, the fact that he loves Meryl Streep and spends 30 "harrowing" seconds showing this is enough to allow him to move onto the next step of the afterlife. This was a tacked-on, Hollywood ending in a movie that could have really said something about the basic instincts that power humans to full, happy lives. What it really could have used was an injection of what made Real Life so great: self-deprecation. Brooks' character could have been an example of a human life gone astray, but instead he redeems himself, unnecessarily, I guess because he's Albert Brooks.

Looking for Comedy gets this right, to a point, but it still bounces around a bit too much for its own good. For me, it wasn't until the very end of the movie that the overly indulgent self-importance he feels from being an "helpful" American really starts to shine through. His quest to understand Muslim humor feels genuine, albeit misguided in practice, for the bulk of the film, and the confusion and eventual conflict between the two countries he's trying to learn from feels like yet another tacked-on moment until you realize, "Oh! By trying to do good, he's doing bad! Just like a stupid American!" If that was the direction Brooks was looking to take his movie, he should have had his character rant about the medal he was hoping for at the completion of his study, instead of the neurotic and harmless conversations about his 500-page report. It doesn't feel complete, and it unfortunately takes yet another interesting idea and leaves it unfulfilled.

I know that I said I really liked Albert Brooks and then proceeded to bash two of his movies, but I don't want these to seem like attacks. He's the filmmaker, and it seems like he's spent his entire career making the movies HE wants to make. Plus, he cast Drew Carey's transvestite brother as one of the State Department agents in Looking for Comedy, and that always gets a thumbs up from me. But as it is with most critics and fervent fans, those who see something special in a filmmaker and want him to replicate that over and over, we start to decide that there's a pecking order in their work, that A is better than B and C has no place being anywhere near D. In Brooks' case, I saw a truly funny man who took a relatively simple idea in Real Life and ran with it in his own special way, and I expected the same generic but outside-the-box touch in his other work. Lost in America and Modern Romance are both wonderful movies that embody this greatly, and as for the vanilla aspects of his later work, it's almost expected at this point to see a comedian become more formulaic as they get older.

The general consensus I've formed on Albert Brooks, though, is that there's no one like him. He has a joke in Looking for Comedy about starring in an Al Jazeera sitcom as a Jew surrounded by Muslims, and he expresses concern about starting a TV career of any type because "he's a filmmaker." The humor is in the absurdity of the show concept, but if you've seen more of Brooks' movies, you know it's true. There's a touch of him in all of his films that I've seen, a throwaway line that makes you rewind, a look or a gesture or (especially) a change in his tone or volume that is perfection personified, and, most importantly, an idea that he twists in one way or another to make you laugh.

So thanks, Rob Turbovsky. You've done it again.

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