Saturday, October 12, 2013

...and Albert Brooks as Albert Brooks

Film: Real Life
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

There’s a problem with the comedy of Albert Brooks. If we lived in a better, closer to perfect, smarter and better educated world, Albert Brooks would be heralded as the funniest human being to ever be alive. Sadly, we live in a world where clowns who fall on their butts are considered the height of comedy. Albert Brooks is far more subtle. A lot of his jokes don’t have a solid payoff. What they have is a great premise that takes us to the point of the punch line, and then forces us to fill in the punch line ourselves. It’s genius stuff, really, but it requires effort from the audience. To really get why Albert Brooks is so damn funny, you have to be willing to walk part of the way there yourself, and a lot of people would rather see wacky antics.

What this means is that a film like Real Life is something that will pass over a lot of people who aren’t willing to get why it’s so funny. Brooks needs his audience to fill in blanks, and with Real Life, this is particularly true. This is a mockumentary of the first order. Brooks plays himself as a filmmaker with the idea of fitting the home of a typical American family with cameras and a crew to film their lives for a year, hoping to get the actual lives of the people on film. Naturally, everything goes to hell immediately, and that’s the comedy.

Of course, the entire thing is a sham—that’s the point of the film. It’s evident immediately, since Warren Yeager, Phoenix veterinarian and head of the Yeager family to be the center of the reality documentary, is played by Charles Grodin. The problems start immediately when the family, returned from an all-expenses trip to Hawaii, come back to their home. Yeager’s wife Jeannette (Frances Lee McCain) immediately regrets the decision to take part in the experiment of having her life filmed and leaves for a weekend alone. This initial setback is followed by others in rapid succession. Her gynecologist proves to be someone who once ran a black market baby ring and appeared on “60 Minutes.” Warren double-doses a sick show horse with anesthetic and kills the animal on camera. Jeannette’s grandmother suffers a stroke and eventually dies. And slowly, the entire process of filming the lives of an average American family unravels.

More than anything, this is a film about that unraveling, and as it should, it focuses on the most interesting part: Albert Brooks. His entire being is tied up in the creation of this grand experiment, and as the family starts to fall apart on him, he becomes more and more extreme in his efforts to get them on track, effectively destroying the methodology of avoiding interference with their lives as much as possible. Eventually, the toll on everyone becomes so great that something like an intervention happens. The two psychologists working on the project (Matthew Tobin and the always-great J.A. Preston) clash both with Brooks and with each other, causing more setbacks and problems.

Very little of this is laugh-out-loud funny, but almost all of it is funny in the extreme. This is more evidence of the problem with Brooks’s comedy for the moviegoer who wants to be spoon-fed the laughs up to and including a laugh track. Frequently, something happens that is funny, but not specifically in the moment. It’s time-released, or at least time-delayed, humor, which makes the jokes all the more devastatingly funny when the humor finally dawns. But the sad truth is that a lot of viewers simply won’t put in the mental effort necessary to get the funny.

Real Life is a surprisingly innovative film as well. Fake documentaries existed before this one, but none really held the same tone. This goes less for the belly laugh and more for the jugular. But the real brilliance of the film is the ultimate target of all of that humor.

It would be simple for a film like Real Life to serve as a mirror to American culture, to lambaste us for our shallowness, our constant hungering after money and status, our cultural ignorance, or any other American stereotype. While the Yeager family is often integral to the humor of the film, it’s almost never the Yeagers who are the source of the comedy. Instead, the focus here is on the film version of Albert Brooks. He’s thoroughly unlikeable. He’s manipulative, vain, ignorant, and wasteful. Rather than going for the easy target—us—Brooks instead goes after himself and allows his fictional personality to be ruthlessly savaged.

So is he making fun of himself? Or is he making fun of the Hollywood system and the star system? Or of the movie business? Probably all of the above. It’s exciting to see a filmmaker eviscerating himself in this way and doing it strictly because it will make us laugh at him and not with him. But, of course, he’s laughing, too.

Once upon a time, while appearing on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” Carl Reiner said that the two funniest people in the world were Mel Brooks and a 12-year-old kid named Albert Einstein. That kid was a friend of his son, Rob Reiner. That kid grew up and changed his stage name to Albert Brooks. Carl Reiner was right—Albert Brooks is the funniest guy going. Well, he is if you take the time to understand why he’s so funny.

Why to watch Real Life As funny a film as you’re likely to ever see.
Why not to watch: You have to work at it.


  1. Well, I'm not sure I've ever thought about Brooks in the way you describe him. I honestly have never found him to be outrageously funny - a few chuckles here and there, maybe some smiles, but I actually liked his dramatic turn in Out of Sight more than anything else I had seen him in.

    Until I saw Real Life.

    I thought this was one of the best films I watched only because it was in the book. I thought it was funny from beginning to end, and by the end I was laughing hysterically as everything climaxed.

    So, did this film make me an Albert Brooks fan? No, but it did make me a fan of this film. It also made me wonder why he couldn't be this funny in his other films (in my opinion, of course).

    1. I recommend Lost in America or Defending Your Life. Especially Defending Your Life. Great film. But I like Defending Your Life better. Not by a ton, but by enough.

  2. Real Life was on the MOVIES! channel and I noticed it on the schedule only about 30 minutes before it started and quickly set the DVR.

    And I watched it the next day. Usually I have a pretty good idea of which movies from the List I'm watching over the next few weeks based on what I can get from the library or what's scheduled on TCM (or wherever) or what I've noted as available on Netflix streaming or YouTube. But it's nice to watch something a little more spontaneously just because it's popped up.

    Real Life is seldom laugh-out-loud funny but I smirked a lot, and it does have its subtly hilarious moments.

    I've heard of this film, but I don't think I've ever heard of anybody calling it a classic, so it's always sort of surprised me that its on the List. But now that I've seen it (and noticed Harry Shearer listed as one of the writers), it strikes me as kind of the unknown ancestor of This Is Spinal Tap and Best in Show.

    1. Yeah, I agree with that. I don't know that I audibly laughed at a ton of this, but I think it's very smart and very sardonic. I appreciate it for where it goes and how it gets there.