Wednesday, February 20, 2008

If=Then 1: Babbling Brooks

Premiering a new feature tonight at the Sickness' Cinema. I'm hoping this can become a semi-recurring feature wherein I can send some love to similarly toned TV shows and films. Tonight's If=Then will feature The Office and the films of Albert Brooks.

In the past decade or so a popular trend in comedy is to play up the horrible awkwardness that can ensue when something as simple as two human being interact. Certain shows nail this kind of humor; the Larry Sanders show, Curb Your Enthusiasm and most recently The Office (both the UK and US versions). All these shows feature moments where characters display brutally naked emotion; whether they be intense moments of desperation, loneliness or yearning these shows, particularly the Office, shows its characters at their absolute lowest moments and the audience gets to make the choice whether to laugh of wince. These shows didn't pioneer this style though. As far as I'm concerned this style dates back to the seventies and eighties in the films of writer/director/actor Albert Brooks.

Chances are that my younger readers aren't familiar with Brooks, or if they are it's through his voice. To some he's the voice of Marlin from Finding Nemo, others may know him through his numerous vocal roles on The Simpsons ranging from Jacques to Hank Scorpio to most recently as Russ Cargill. It should be noted that Brooks was probably the first big name celebrity to lend his name to the show (one of many times that Brooks preceded the zeitgeist by some years).

Brooks began his career a writer and stand-up comedian finding his way into films like Taxi Driver and again showed himself to be far ahead of a popular trend by directing video shorts for SNL in it's earliest years. Brooks took on directing a feature film for the first time in 1979 with the incredibly prescient Real Life. Brooks, in addition to directing, wrote and starred in the film as an obnoxious documentarian who lived with a suburban family. Appearing decades prior to the first reality shows, Real Life commented on the sordid but compelling everyday drama that goes on in households everywhere. The awkwardness that stems from having a camera in people's most intimate nooks and crannies can make for equal parts drama and comedy. Brooks was capturing something that would pull in audiences to shows like The Real World and Big Brother long before either show were twinkles in their producers eyes. If you love when the Office scopes out Dwight and Angela through window shades this might be a worthwhile film to check out.

Brooks next film, 1981's Modern Romance, is probably one of the most piercing, well observed comedies EVER made. No less than Stanley Kubrick called it "A perfect film". Stanley. Kubrick. The film couldn't be more simple, it follows Brooks, a needy, nebbishy film editor (big clue right there as editors have an almost godlike level of control over a film) breaking-up and subsequently getting back together with his girlfriend (Kathryn Harrold) several times. The film never leaves Brooks who agonizes over every word and gesture, every decision, over-analyzing every aspect of the relationship. It'd be painful to watch if it wasn't so damn funny. Brooks doesn't pull punches or give himself real happy endings and while his character's may be smart they're not smart as they think they are. If you love those moments when Michael bumbles his way through interactions with ANYONE in the show I would wholeheartedly recommend Modern Romance. A quick note on the title, despite this film being made in the early 80's Brooks doesn't bog it down with period signifiers, setting the universal conflicts between men and women front and center. In other words, don't worry that it's an 80's fim.

Brooks next film Lost in America served as a reaction to yuppies and wannabes trying to ape the counter-culture trends of the 60's and 70's. When Brooks and his wife (Julie Hagerty) decide to throw away their posh life and live on their nest egg traveling the country in an RV and are met with comic disappointment. I'm reluctant to give this film my full endorsement as I think it doesn't give Hagerty a single redeeming moment. She's a naieve and vapid yuppie and never gets a chance to be anything else. But if you enjoy watching fish-out-of-water flop around like...say Michael Scott at Diwali Lost in America is worth a look.

Defending Your Life is probably my sentimental favorite Brooks film. Brooks went to great lengths to sketch out an entirely new conception of the afterlife. People shy away from death and what comes next but Brooks embrace the concept in this story where Brooks' yuppie protagonist dies and is transported to a very professional sort of heavenly way-station where Brooks' deeds in his life are assessed in a trial. Brooks is represented by the always delightfully gregarious Rip Torn. While in "Judgment City" Brooks befriends and develops an intense attraction to another member of the deceased, a woman who was near-perfect in life, appropriately played by Meryl Streep. Even in the afterlife Brooks is unwilling to properly assess himself as a human being and whether he goes on to heaven or if he even deserves it leads to an intense emotion filled climax (one of my personal favorites of all-time). If you love those season-finale moments where the Jim and Pam romance is advanced just a teensy bit, Defending Your Life is as good a film as your likely to see.

Brooks more recent films have not set the world afire either critically or at the box-office, but it could just be more of Brooks being ahead of his time and these films will be revered down the line (unfortunately the best thing about Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is the title). I would be remiss if I didn't at least mention the brilliant Broadcast News that Brooks neither directed nor wrote but did star in. The film is a perfectly enchanting story about sensationalism and personalities creeping into newscasts. Brooks is entirely sympathetic and hilarious as the writer desperately in love with his best friend and producer played by Holly Hunter. Throwing a serious wrench in the works is pretty-boy anchor William Hurt. If you must see one movie I'm recommending to build up sympathy for Brooks (the man has none for himself) see this one.


Gabe said...

Don't forget Brooks' tour de force performance in 2003's The In-Laws, which played up what can happen when an awkward and shy person encounters a creepy CIA agent.

El Gigante said...

Yeahhh that movie is a remake of an actual classic comedy. Which I would urge you to see as it is WAY better then the Brooks version I'm sorry to say.

Frank said...

(To the tune of "Midnight Train to Georgia"): "I can sing while I read, I am singing... and reading BOTH!"

Also, shame on you for not mentioning Martin Scorsese and James Cameron in the underrated "The Muse". More importantly, how did you not mention Brooks' single most important role to date: HANK SCORPIO! "In fact, I didn't even give you my coat!"

El Gigante said...

Ah holy crap! I completely screwed up, I typed Max Power CLEARLY intending to write Hank Scorpio (cause DUH as everyone knows Max Power was the nom-de-plume Homer legally changed to). I will correct this post haste.

As for "shame on me" for not mentioning Martin Scorsese and James Cameron in the muse you'll forgive me if I don't find "Raging Bull but skinny" to be particularly funny. I think both guys have cameoed more amusingly on HBO series.