June 25, 2024 3:28 am

Albert Brooks: Defending My Life
Albert Brooks: Defending My Life

Albert Brooks: Defending My Life

Albert Brooks has been one of the giants of American comedy for half a century. “Albert Brooks: Defending Your Life” is a tribute to his talent and insight, directed by actor-filmmaker Rob Reiner, who met Brooks at Beverly Hills High School and has been his best friend ever since. Framed by a leisurely dinner between Brooks and Reiner at a Los Angeles restaurant, the movie follows Brooks from his early childhood in a showbiz family through his years as a standup comic, a short filmmaker on “Saturday Night Live,” a writer-director-star of film comedies (including “Real Life,” “Modern Romance,” and “Lost in America“), and a character actor in other people’s movies and TV series (including “Taxi Driver,” “Drive,” “Out of Sight,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and “Broadcast News,” which got Brooks an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor). 

This is not a detached, analytical work, nor does it try to be. It’s the movie equivalent of a memorial service for a beloved individual who’s still alive—a concept that Reiner makes official by quoting from a “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode wherein Brooks (playing himself) is the subject of such a tribute, then is exposed as a hoarder of Covid-related supplies and ostracized—a twist worthy of one of Brooks’ comedy routines or movie scripts, which often take a familiar comic concept and turn it inside-out or upside-down. “Curb” creator and star Larry David is one of many famous colleagues who appear onscreen as expert witnesses to Brooks’ influence on their own work. 

There’s a consensus that what Brooks did at every stage of his career was so fresh and unique that there was nothing to compare it to. The movie’s best achievement is arranging the bits and pieces of Brooks’ life and art so that we can see not just the consistently high quality of it all, but Brooks’ creative integrity as he moved through it. In his smart, self-deprecating way, Brooks (who was born Albert Einstein; yes, really) insisted on doing everything his own way, not out of defiance or pure ego, but because, as he explains it, it never occurred to him to do it another way. As he tells Reiner, it’s not as if there were two roads that he obviously could have taken at any point and he always picked the hard one. “I only saw one road!” he exclaims.

In the mid-70s, for instance, Brooks took a meeting with Lorne Michaels, who thought that Brooks’ brand of exuberant yet accessible conceptual comedy was a perfect fit for his new live sketch show “Saturday Night Live” and asked him to host it. Brooks told Michaels that he thought it would be more fun and interesting to have a new host every week, something that had never been done before. And rather than join the “SNL” cast as a performer, Brooks asked if he could show short films that he’d made, which retrained his fan base to think of him as a filmmaker and positioned him to make the leap to full-length theatrical movies. Brooks’ debut feature, “Real Life,” was the first in a string of four classic Brooks films: a satire on documentary ethics, about a director (Brooks) who starts out trying to capture the life of a suburban family with his film crew but immediately begins interfering in it because he wants the result to be more exciting and commercial. Released in 1978, three years after “SNL” debuted, “Real Life” predicted what we now think of as “reality TV.” Brooks kept doing that throughout his career: doing what seemed best for the work, even if it closed off more lucrative avenues for himself.

Brooks’ follow-up, “Modern Romance,” is one of the great studies of romantic and sexual obsession, about a couple that keeps breaking up and getting back together even though they make each other miserable. If you squint a bit, you can see the influence of “Taxi Driver,” the Martin Scorsese film in which Brooks played a campaign worker who’s in love with a colleague played by Cybill Shepherd; that role also feels like a bit of a dry run for the character of Aaron Altman in “Broadcast News,” which was written specifically for Brooks by his friend James L. Brooks (no relation). He followed it up with “Lost In America,” about a couple of married yuppies who sell their house and buy a Winnebago to enact a safe version of their “Easy Rider” fantasy about seeing the real America, then lose their nest egg in Las Vegas and learn how most Americans actually live. Then came “Defending Your Life,” an afterlife comedy which, as Brooks and others put it, is really about how hard it is to life one’s life without fear. Brooks, it seems, actually managed to do that, to some degree—although it meant that he never achieved superstar status and remained a “comedian’s comedian,” appreciated most fervently by other artists, and fans of comedy that could seem weird, confusing, or uncomfortable if you weren’t tuned into its wavelength. 

Brooks became semi-famous as a high schooler when Rob Reiner’s father, actor and filmmaker Carl Reiner, declared him one of the funniest people he’d ever seen. The movie gives us an account of a Brooks routine that impressed the elder Reiner: at a party, young Brooks presented himself as a master escape artist in the vein of Harry Houdini, then asked a guest to bind and gag him (by placing one napkin loosely over his wrists and putting another one wadded-up in his mouth) and then “imprisoned” himself behind a curtain, then began writhing and wailing about how he was trapped and was dying. A lot of Brooks’ early comedy bits are like that: they take the germ of an old showbiz routine or trope and pulls the guts out of it (as in the classic moment on the old “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson where Brooks does “celebrity impressions” by eating different kinds of food). Incredibly, some of Brooks’ best-known bits as a guest on talk and variety shows weren’t rehearsed: he just thought them up in the dressing room before airtime and did them publicly for the first time. “Your brain has to work at a certain level to do comedy without trying it out,” Chris Rock tells Reiner.

That exuberant, at times reckless-seeming quality has always run beneath Brooks’ art, along with a brainy, theoretical aspect that is difficult to unpack and scrutinize—although one sometimes wishes the film had tried harder to do so. The weakest element of “Defending My Life” is the litany of sound bites from other performers and filmmakers (including Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman, Conan O’Brien, and Jon Stewart) that needlessly fluff Brooks’ reputation and repeat wearying variations of “he’s a genius, he was so revolutionary, so amazing,” or compare him to Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier or the like. It’s not until confrontational standup comic Anthony Jeselnik shows up that we get a bit of real insight about what, exactly, Brooks’ comedy was always about: “It was punk rock, almost, for comedy,” he says of Brooks’ earliest routines, especially the ones he did for Carson. “He saw what was going on, he saw the old Holywood way, and instead of just saying ‘this is bad, this is corny,’ he showed them.” The notion of Brooks as ground zero for the self-aware or “anti-comedy” movement, which birthed everyone from Bill Murray and David Letterman (also an interviewee) through Silverman and the “Mr. Show” cast, is fascinating enough that it could be a film unto itself, but it’s merely glanced at here.

The greatest insights about Brooks the man arrive in the section about his parents, radio comic Harry Einstein (who did Greek dialect comedy, as the immigrant character Parkyakarkus) and onetime musical comedy performer Thelma Reed (whom Einstein met on the set of a movie). Brooks’ father was chronically ill and died onstage, literally not figuratively, at a Friars’ Club tribute in 1958, after performing a routine his son helped write. Brooks tells Reiner that after his father’s death, he wanted to “cheat God” by using comedy to keep a barrier between himself and both his audience and the people in his lives (something he didn’t realize he was doing until the mid-70s, when his career as a standup comic and recording artist was stagnating). The work got progressively more emotionally-driven after that, peaking with the hopeful “Defending Your Life,” the first Brooks film that made audiences cry at the end (and not because the characters were doomed). 

The section about Brooks’ film “Mother,” starring Brooks as a successful novelist and Debbie Reynolds as his devoted but smothering and withholding mom, is another biographical jackpot. Brooks says it was about the belated realization that his mother’s lack of interest in her son’s career was a veiled expression of her resentment at having given up her own showbiz career to raise Brooks and his three brothers, something she must have felt keenly every day but didn’t want to burden her boys with. (She did get some digs in, though: when Brooks told her that when he died, he wanted to be cremated, his mother replied, “Of course—I can tell by your cooking.”)

Brooks offers simple explanations for work that’s been analyzed within an inch of its life by his fans. (He also describes “Lost in America” as a movie about “People who make gigantic decisions and are wrong,” and “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World“—released in 2005, in the midst of post-9/11 hysteria—as an attempt “to show that you could say the word ‘Muslim’ and not be killed.” He’s also generous in his praise for collaborators and colleagues (including his regular co-screenwriter Monica Johnson) and thoughtful in explaining why he waited so long to get married and have kids (with his wife Kimberly) and why he did it when he did it (at a certain point in one’s love life, he says, you can just stop looking). 

This film will be a treat for anyone who loves any part of Brooks career, or all of it. And its subject is so fascinating and open-hearted that one can imagine people who’ve never heard his name until now getting something out of it, too.

On HBO on November 11th.

Albert Brooks has been one of the giants of American comedy for half a century. “Albert Brooks: Defending Your Life” is a tribute to his talent and insight, directed by actor-filmmaker Rob Reiner, who met Brooks at Beverly Hills High School and has been his best friend ever since. Framed by a leisurely dinner between Brooks and Reiner at a Los Angeles restaurant, the movie follows Brooks from his early childhood in a showbiz family through his years as a standup comic, a short filmmaker on “Saturday Night Live,” a writer-director-star of film comedies (including “Real Life,” “Modern Romance,” and “Lost in America”), and a character actor in other people’s movies and TV series (including “Taxi Driver,” “Drive,” “Out of Sight,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and “Broadcast News,” which got Brooks an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor).  This is not a detached, analytical work, nor does it try to be. It’s the movie equivalent of a memorial service for a beloved individual who’s still alive—a concept that Reiner makes official by quoting from a “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode wherein Brooks (playing himself) is the subject of such a tribute, then is exposed as a hoarder of Covid-related supplies and ostracized—a twist worthy of one of Brooks’ comedy routines or movie scripts, which often take a familiar comic concept and turn it inside-out or upside-down. “Curb” creator and star Larry David is one of many famous colleagues who appear onscreen as expert witnesses to Brooks’ influence on their own work.  There’s a consensus that what Brooks did at every stage of his career was so fresh and unique that there was nothing to compare it to. The movie’s best achievement is arranging the bits and pieces of Brooks’ life and art so that we can see not just the consistently high quality of it all, but Brooks’ creative integrity as he moved through it. In his smart, self-deprecating way, Brooks (who was born Albert Einstein; yes, really) insisted on doing everything his own way, not out of defiance or pure ego, but because, as he explains it, it never occurred to him to do it another way. As he tells Reiner, it’s not as if there were two roads that he obviously could have taken at any point and he always picked the hard one. “I only saw one road!” he exclaims. In the mid-70s, for instance, Brooks took a meeting with Lorne Michaels, who thought that Brooks’ brand of exuberant yet accessible conceptual comedy was a perfect fit for his new live sketch show “Saturday Night Live” and asked him to host it. Brooks told Michaels that he thought it would be more fun and interesting to have a new host every week, something that had never been done before. And rather than join the “SNL” cast as a performer, Brooks asked if he could show short films that he’d made, which retrained his fan base to think of him as a filmmaker and positioned him to make the leap to full-length theatrical movies. Brooks’ debut feature, “Real Life,” was the first in a string of four classic Brooks films: a satire on documentary ethics, about a director (Brooks) who starts out trying to capture the life of a suburban family with his film crew but immediately begins interfering in it because he wants the result to be more exciting and commercial. Released in 1978, three years after “SNL” debuted, “Real Life” predicted what we now think of as “reality TV.” Brooks kept doing that throughout his career: doing what seemed best for the work, even if it closed off more lucrative avenues for himself. Brooks’ follow-up, “Modern Romance,” is one of the great studies of romantic and sexual obsession, about a couple that keeps breaking up and getting back together even though they make each other miserable. If you squint a bit, you can see the influence of “Taxi Driver,” the Martin Scorsese film in which Brooks played a campaign worker who’s in love with a colleague played by Cybill Shepherd; that role also feels like a bit of a dry run for the character of Aaron Altman in “Broadcast News,” which was written specifically for Brooks by his friend James L. Brooks (no relation). He followed it up with “Lost In America,” about a couple of married yuppies who sell their house and buy a Winnebago to enact a safe version of their “Easy Rider” fantasy about seeing the real America, then lose their nest egg in Las Vegas and learn how most Americans actually live. Then came “Defending Your Life,” an afterlife comedy which, as Brooks and others put it, is really about how hard it is to life one’s life without fear. Brooks, it seems, actually managed to do that, to some degree—although it meant that he never achieved superstar status and remained a “comedian’s comedian,” appreciated most fervently by other artists, and fans of comedy that could seem weird, confusing, or uncomfortable if you weren’t tuned into its wavelength.  Brooks became semi-famous as a high schooler when Rob Reiner’s father, actor and filmmaker Carl Reiner, declared him one of the funniest people he’d ever seen. The movie gives us an account of a Brooks routine that impressed the elder Reiner: at a party, young Brooks presented himself as a master escape artist in the vein of Harry Houdini, then asked a guest to bind and gag him (by placing one napkin loosely over his wrists and putting another one wadded-up in his mouth) and then “imprisoned” himself behind a curtain, then began writhing and wailing about how he was trapped and was dying. A lot of Brooks’ early comedy bits are like that: they take the germ of an old showbiz routine or trope and pulls the guts out of it (as in the classic moment on the old “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson where Brooks does “celebrity impressions” by eating different kinds of food). Incredibly, some of Brooks’ best-known bits as a guest on talk and variety shows weren’t rehearsed: he just thought them up in the dressing room before airtime and did them publicly for the first time. “Your brain has to work at a certain level to do comedy without trying it out,” Chris Rock tells Reiner. That exuberant, at times reckless-seeming quality has always run beneath Brooks’ art, along with a brainy, theoretical aspect that is difficult to unpack and scrutinize—although one sometimes wishes the film had tried harder to do so. The weakest element of “Defending My Life” is the litany of sound bites from other performers and filmmakers (including Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman, Conan O’Brien, and Jon Stewart) that needlessly fluff Brooks’ reputation and repeat wearying variations of “he’s a genius, he was so revolutionary, so amazing,” or compare him to Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier or the like. It’s not until confrontational standup comic Anthony Jeselnik shows up that we get a bit of real insight about what, exactly, Brooks’ comedy was always about: “It was punk rock, almost, for comedy,” he says of Brooks’ earliest routines, especially the ones he did for Carson. “He saw what was going on, he saw the old Holywood way, and instead of just saying ‘this is bad, this is corny,’ he showed them.” The notion of Brooks as ground zero for the self-aware or “anti-comedy” movement, which birthed everyone from Bill Murray and David Letterman (also an interviewee) through Silverman and the “Mr. Show” cast, is fascinating enough that it could be a film unto itself, but it’s merely glanced at here. The greatest insights about Brooks the man arrive in the section about his parents, radio comic Harry Einstein (who did Greek dialect comedy, as the immigrant character Parkyakarkus) and onetime musical comedy performer Thelma Reed (whom Einstein met on the set of a movie). Brooks’ father was chronically ill and died onstage, literally not figuratively, at a Friars’ Club tribute in 1958, after performing a routine his son helped write. Brooks tells Reiner that after his father’s death, he wanted to “cheat God” by using comedy to keep a barrier between himself and both his audience and the people in his lives (something he didn’t realize he was doing until the mid-70s, when his career as a standup comic and recording artist was stagnating). The work got progressively more emotionally-driven after that, peaking with the hopeful “Defending Your Life,” the first Brooks film that made audiences cry at the end (and not because the characters were doomed).  The section about Brooks’ film “Mother,” starring Brooks as a successful novelist and Debbie Reynolds as his devoted but smothering and withholding mom, is another biographical jackpot. Brooks says it was about the belated realization that his mother’s lack of interest in her son’s career was a veiled expression of her resentment at having given up her own showbiz career to raise Brooks and his three brothers, something she must have felt keenly every day but didn’t want to burden her boys with. (She did get some digs in, though: when Brooks told her that when he died, he wanted to be cremated, his mother replied, “Of course—I can tell by your cooking.”) Brooks offers simple explanations for work that’s been analyzed within an inch of its life by his fans. (He also describes “Lost in America” as a movie about “People who make gigantic decisions and are wrong,” and “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World”—released in 2005, in the midst of post-9/11 hysteria—as an attempt “to show that you could say the word ‘Muslim’ and not be killed.” He’s also generous in his praise for collaborators and colleagues (including his regular co-screenwriter Monica Johnson) and thoughtful in explaining why he waited so long to get married and have kids (with his wife Kimberly) and why he did it when he did it (at a certain point in one’s love life, he says, you can just stop looking).  This film will be a treat for anyone who loves any part of Brooks career, or all of it. And its subject is so fascinating and open-hearted that one can imagine people who’ve never heard his name until now getting something out of it, too.On HBO on November 11th. Read More