Arts & Culture

Albert Brooks: Genius

2 things: 1. Albert Brooks is one of the most underrated comedic minds ever.   2. Saul Austerlitz knows great comedic minds because he’s taken the time to write a book titled, Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film … Read More

By / September 28, 2010

2 things:

1. Albert Brooks is one of the most underrated comedic minds ever.  

2. Saul Austerlitz knows great comedic minds because he’s taken the time to write a book titled, Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy (Chicago Review Press) So the essay he’s contributed below, which breaks down the high points of Mr. Brooks’ career, could pretty much be considered the quintessential essay on his works

A man sits alone in his apartment.  Sits is perhaps not the optimal word; he bounces off the walls, a product of the two Quaaludes he took and the breakup he just initiated with his longtime, long-suffering girlfriend.  He lies down on his bed.  "I can’t sleep!" he wails, having closed his eyes for approximately ten seconds.  Wobbly, crashing into doors and furniture, he flips through the vinyl albums on his bookshelf.  "God, I have so many great albums.  I love ‘em, I love ‘em!"  He decides on the cheeseball-disco anthem "A Fifth of Beethoven," flailing wildly before yanking the disc off the stereo, whining: "I don’t like this song, it makes me sad."  He riffles the entries in his Rolodex, intoning the phrase "look how many friends I have" as if it were an incantation, protection against the onset of melancholy, or worse, boredom.  Stopping at one entry, he picks up the telephone.  "I have deep feelings for you," he tells Ellen, whose name had looked vaguely familiar.  He offers to take her out on a date.  "You’re going to have the best time you ever had," he croons into the receiver.  "And Ellen, this could be serious!"  The man hangs up the telephone.

Blinkered optimists and monsters of emotionally needy narcissism, the heroes of Albert Brooks’s movies are all brothers.  The scene described above takes place near the start of Brooks’ 1981 Modern Romance, but with only minor changes, could be cut and pasted into any one of his films.  Brooks’ movies are all about different topics-moviemaking, relationships, the rat race, families-but they are all very much about the same character, one whom we’ll call, for lack of a better appellation, Albert Brooks.  Whether or not the actual Albert Brooks is himself an emotionally crippled, self-obsessed egotist is not up for discussion here; for the sake of friends and family members, one can hope he is caring, self-sacrificing, and given to adopting stray puppies.  What is clear, though, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that "Albert Brooks" is all of those things and more, and the films which Brooks has directed-particularly his first three efforts, Real Life, Modern Romance, and Lost in America-are separate entries in a single epic satire of yuppie ambition, confusion, and self-absorption.

Like Woody Allen, with whom he is often compared, Albert Brooks’ films document a single milieu with obsessive rigor.  For Brooks, it is the monied classes of West Los Angeles who are his kinfolk.  Also like Allen, Brooks is given to playing variations on a single character-one who bears at least a surface resemblance to the man himself.  Unlike Woody, Brooks prefers hitting the road to staying at home, and many of his films break out of L.A. in search of the world at large.  Pity, then, that our guide remains stuck at home; you can take the yuppie out of Los Angeles, but you can’t take Los Angeles out of the yuppie.  Wherever Brooks’ characters go, there they are; be it the open road, New Delhi, or the afterlife, the miasma of L.A. ambition, entitlement, and selfishness trails behind like a noxious perfume.

His movies are also all failed experiments.  Not for the filmmaker-considering the cohesion of his work, we can only assume that Albert Brooks has accomplished precisely what he had hoped to-but for his characters, who all set out in search of something they are too self-absorbed to find.  Brooks is not much of a technician-no one would ever mistake him for Allen as a director-but the blandness of his filmmaking technique only serves to belie the unity, simplicity, rigor, and pitilessness of his films.  To watch an Albert Brooks film is to be a helpless onlooker to the utter degradation of a human soul.  The joke is that only we, the audience, appear to be aware of that fact.

Having graduated from stand-up comedian to feature filmmaker with 1979’s Real Life, Brooks brought along his proclivity for self-referential meta-comedy.  Brooks was inspired by the groundbreaking 1972 PBS reality series An American Family, which had been the first television program to depict the mundane lives of everyday Americans.  With his debut film, Brooks was not only parodying himself-his "Albert Brooks," in search of an ordinary American family whose lives he can document on film, is delusional, self-obsessed, manically predisposed to entertain, and incapable of comprehending anything beyond the purview of show business-but, like Preston Sturges in Sullivan’s Travels, the comedian’s inaptitude for the complexities of real life.

"Be yourselves!" Albert shouts over and over again at the Yeagers, his designated ordinary family, but his sense of reality has been warped by Hollywood.  A limousine is dispatched to the airport to fetch the Yeagers from their vacation, and a huge crew, most of whom will have nothing to do with the production of the film, is introduced to the family for the sake of keeping up appearances.  A troubled wife and mother turns to Albert for guidance, wanting to leave her husband and hoping to seduce a Hollywood star to boot, but Albert is not entirely sympathetic.  When she cries, Albert offers some half-hearted air-pats of her back; when she snarls, "I’d like to be alone," he asks, "Can we come with you?" 

Brooks was called Robert Cole in his next film, Modern Romance (1981), and was a film editor, not a director, but otherwise little had changed.  The narcissism and self-absorption had been preserved untouched, with the focus shifting from crafting a film to crafting a line of patter to win a woman’s affections.  Robert breaks up with his long-time, on-again-off-again girlfriend Mary (played by Brooks’ then-girlfriend, Kathryn Harrold), and then immediately regrets it.  The Quaalude-fueled interlude is only the beginning of Robert’s self-serving effort to simultaneously get over Mary and win her back. 

Robert is inordinately painful to watch, and Brooks derives a great deal of pleasure from watching us squirm. "I can’t work now," he tells his assistant editor Jay (Bruno Kirby).  "I’m a mess!"  The joke is that Robert looks utterly unflappable, here and everywhere else in the film.  His theoretical trauma hardly appears to touch him, which is why he must insist, in ever-louder tones, on the sincerity of his emotion.  Mary, too, is finally just an impediment to Robert’s pursuit of the greatest love of all: self-love.  "There’s something wrong with you," she bluntly tells him.  "No, there isn’t," he crisply responds, pulling out the sharpest arrow in his arsenal.  "I’m in love." 

Brooks inverts another staple of American cinema and television with Lost in America (1985).  That late 1960’s classic of rebel culture, Easy Rider, is turned inside out for the go-go 1980’s, becoming a parable of easily tempered yuppie rebellion.  Brooks is David Howard, an L.A. advertising executive cruelly denied a promised promotion.  Distraught at the collapse of his ambitions-he’d picked out the new Mercedes and everything! -David manically bursts into his wife Linda’s office, shouting at her to follow suit: "Quit right now!"  David and Linda (Julie Hagerty, ideally cast as a self-destructive naïf) hit the open road to the strains of Steppenwolf’s "Born to Be Wild," and other Easy Rider hand-me-downs farcically stud the film.  After gambling away the couple’s entire savings in a single frenzied night at a Vegas casino, Linda insists that Captain America and Billy had no such nest egg; later in the film, David bonds with a cop intent on giving him a ticket over their shared love for the counterculture motorcyclists. 

Brooks is mocking the very foundations of the dream factory he works in.  Truth, romance, freedom-these are only products the movies sell us, his films mordantly inform us.  David and Linda are lost in America because there is no real America to find.  As a stand-up comic, Brooks had specialized in a bit called "Danny and Dave" (eventually revived for his 2005 film Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World) in which a ventriloquist visibly moved his lips while his dummy "spoke." "Danny and Dave" wasn’t funny in and of itself, but only as a reflection on all the mediocre performers Brooks was winking at.  Brooks’ films exhibit a similarly nervy metaphysical stance, in which they succeed primarily by failing.  The crashing and burning of his characters’ ambitions, and those of the films in which they reside, does not mark a failure of nerve on Brooks’ part; rather, the failure is itself the comedy.