Feature: "The Funniest Man in Films?"
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The Funniest Man in Films?

It's Albert Brooks, Einstein

By D. Scott Apel

Forget Jim Carrey. Forget Robin Williams. The single genius comedian working in films today might just be Albert Brooks.

As an actor, Brooks has appeared in numerous films, from such classic fare as Taxi Driver and Broadcast News to stinkers like I'll Do Anything and The Scout. The problem is simply that no one can write for Albert Brooks like Albert Brooks. In the handful of films he has written, directed and starred in, his comic genius is in full view, and in full blossom. Few comedians can match Brooks' subtle insights and unique perspective on life, love and anxiety -- which is probably to be expected from a man whose given name was "Albert Einstein." (Incidentally, Bob Einstein, better known in entertainment circles as humorless, accident-prone stuntman "Super Dave Osborne," is Albert's real-life brother.)

But you don't have to take my word for Brooks' brilliance, as we herewith present a checklist of his films, every one of which is highly recommended entertainment. And you don't have to be an Einstein to enjoy them, either.

Real Life (1979; Paramount; rated R). In 1973, PBS aired An American Family, a unique series in which a real family's life was filmed and shown on TV. "The motion picture you are about to see," states an introductory note to Real Life, "is the next step. It documents not only the life of a real family, but of the real people who came to film that family, and the effect they had on each other." Thus begins a year-long invasion of the lives of Phoenix veterinarian Warren Yeager (Charles Grodin) and his wife Janette (Frances Lee McCain) by comedian-turned-filmmaker Albert Brooks. Murphy's Martial Law is declared immediately: Brooks accompanies Janette to the gynecologist (who's "had a bad experience with the 60 Minutes people"). Janette comes on to Albert, who makes only token efforts to dissuade her. Janette's grandmother dies, and Warren loses his patient (a horse) and his mind. "That was just the beginning of what was to be a bad time in the Yeager's lives," Brooks narrates in his understated, unaware manner. But despite disintegrating lives, personalities and projects, he's determined to give his first film a memorable, Gone With the Wind-style finale...

Quantum physics revealed the principle of observer interference, but no one ever took it quite as far as Brooks. In his first feature, Brooks and frequent collaborator Monica Johnson (with the help of comedian Harry Shearer, who also has a small role as Pete the cameraman) developed that idea into this "mockumentary," as he illustrates how that PBS documentary might have turned out had it been overseen by an excessively ambitious, passive-aggressively manipulative megalomaniac -- a whining, wheedling weasel too egocentric to have the camera pointed anywhere but at himself. Brooks proves a constant frustration to the psychologists assigned as observers, as well, and even this battery of shrinks can't keep his ego in check. (Informed that his filming has triggered "drastic emotional changes" in the family, for example, his response is, "And that's bad?") Upfront he states, "We're making a movie about reality" -- but fortunately for us, it's Brooks' neurotically warped version of reality that ends up on film: a reality that even he eventually has to admit "sucks."

Conan O'Brien has referred to Real Life as "the funniest movie ever made." It's a true buried treasure on video -- and one buried so deeply that you'll have to embark on a treasure hunt to find a copy. But it's definitely worth the search.

Modern Romance (1981; Columbia TriStar; R). Brooks is a film editor petrified by The Big "C": Commitment. While the film is light on plot, it's heavily weighted with barbed lines and painfully accurate emotional insights -- and Brooks' portrayal of a neurotic makes even Woody Allen look well-adjusted. Brooks co-wrote (again with Monica Johnson) and directed, and his co-stars include brother Bob Einstein, Kathryn Harrold and Bruno Kirby.

Lost in America (1985; Warner; R). Brooks and Johnson co-wrote this tongue-in-cheek odyssey of two young urban professionals (Brooks and Julie Hagerty) who renounce their lifestyle and hit the road to "find themselves" -- "like in Easy Rider", Albert keeps explaining, only they've substituted a fully stocked Winnebago for the traditional choppers. When a disastrous side trip to Las Vegas poaches their nest egg, the yuppie couple inspires some painful laughs as they attempt to become upwardly mobile once again, starting from ground zero. Brooks' social satire is firmly rooted in the '80s, needling the dreams and puncturing the pretensions of an entire decade -- and an entire generation.

Defending Your Life (1991; Warner; PG). Where do you go with a film when your main character dies in the first five minutes? To Heaven, of course -- or, more accurately, to "Judgment City," a part-Las Vegas, part-DisneyWorld holding pen for the recently deceased, where lives are reviewed and fates decided. Brooks' recurring film character -- the deeply shallow, weasely egotist -- reaches its finest refinement here, and undergoes a maturing transformation as well, thanks to the redeeming power of his love for a saintly, sprightly Meryl Streep. Brooks' warm, wise, witty, thoughtful and thoroughly charming fantasy of life (and love) after death is a nearly perfect romantic comedy -- one that touches both the heart and the mind.

Mother (1997; Paramount; R). Brooks wrote and directed himself in this recently-released twisted rib-tickler about a middle-aged failure whose lack of luck with women he attributes to his very first relationship with the distaff gender: i.e., his mom. When he determines to revert to being a "mama's boy" and moves back into her house to resolve that unsettled trauma, he uncovers much more than he bargained for about his dear, dimwitted mama's pre- and post-child life. Not Brooks' best film, but full of the everyday absurdities of the mother-son struggle -- not to mention a delightful performance by Debbie Reynolds as his not-such-a-dimbulb dam.

D. Scott Apel is the former video columnist for the San Jose (CA) Mercury News, and is author of the video guide Killer B's: The 237 Best Movies On Video You've (Probably) Never Seen.

Previous features:
Mother's Day: Sons and Mothers
Will We Remember Them? Oscar Winners From the Past
Oscar's Cinema Lineage
Love Makes the World Go 'Round
Buried Treasures of 1997
It's a Wonderful Film: Frank Capra's Christmas gift to the world.
Intelligent alien connections with "Contact" ... and other benign close encounters.
Die Laughing: 13 flicks guaranteed to rattle your funny bones.
Film Noir: Build a library of some classic B-pictures.
Thanksgiving turkeys: A giblet-eye view of the worst of 1997.

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June 5, 1998