Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Frustrating Film Career Of Albert Brooks

I like Albert Brooks as an actor and a comedian. I think he’s a smart guy with a sense of humor that you don’t find that often in American movies. With this in mind, I find it strange that Brooks-- whose career began with a series of shorts on Saturday Night Live and includes films like Lost in America and Defending Your Life -- has never made a film I really love. His acting is fine, his dialogue is snappy, and the plots of his films usually seem well-conceived, but for me there’s always something that feels wholly unsatisfying about his movies.

Brooks is often described as a forgotten auteur of American cinema, a statement that I find both accurate and possibly misleading. It is certainly true that he occupies a fiercely unique position in modern film. Not only does he write and direct all his movies, but he also stars in them, usually playing a strange amalgam of himself (sometimes literally) and a fictional character. More than any filmmaker I can think of, Brooks has taken the Woody Allen style of filmmaking and run with it. But despite establishing himself as one of the most idiosyncratic comedians around, he’s never gained the commercial or artistic notoriety that has always followed the likes of Allen or other actor-directors like John Cassavettes.

Some of this is undoubtedly due to Brooks’ sly, low-key style, which combines cerebral humor and a whopping dose of irony. As a stand up comedian he was known for his self-reflexive routines, which often revolved around confusing his audience with what appeared to be a failed performance before bringing down the house with a well-timed punchline (he performs just such a routine in a segment of 2005’s Looking For Comedy in the Muslim World, with mixed results). He is a comedian unafraid of letting his jokes fly over the heads of his audience members, so it’s no surprise that he appeals to a niche fan base.

The problem with Brooks is that he tries to bring such a free-form style-- which may very well work in a stand-up setting-- to his movies. While this kind of drollness is undoubtedly what gives him some of his charm, it’s also why his movies never work as consistent pieces of entertainment. It’s as though he makes a movie for the sake of committing a few good scenes to celluloid, and then halfheartedly fills in the gaps. The result is that his movies drag a great deal, and are often filled with ill-advised plot twists that rob the stories of their inertia.

Such a scene occurs midway through Brooks’ Lost In America, a movie that many consider to be his best. The story follows a couple (Brooks and Julie Haggerty) that take off on the road in an RV after quitting their jobs and rejecting their middle-class lifestyle. It's quite funny for its first half, with Brooks the suburbanite lamely truing to model his life on Easy Rider, but before the film can really explore the complexities of this concept, it falls off the rails. In a wildly unoriginal plot twist, the two gamble away all their money in Las Vegas and end up penniless and stranded. From there on the film devolves into half-baked attempts at satire of the American Dream, but it never regains the momentum of its earlier half. The problem is that this kind of shoddy plotting isn't confined to just this film. Similar moments can be found in Mother and Modern Romance, and really the less said about Looking For Comedy in the Muslim World and The Muse, the better.

Not surprisingly, the two best Albert Brooks films are the ones that rely on the most high concept plot devices: his film debut Real Life and 1991’s Defending Your Life. Both films are so tied to a dramatic conceit-- a mockumentary and a lighthearted exploration of the afterlife-- that they manage to work as more than the sum of their parts. Defending Your Life has a near-perfect cast and manages to be the most charming and all-around watchable of Brooks’ films, and Real Life is an incisive satire that managed to anticipate the reality TV craze a whole two decades before it really caught on. Its documentary framing technique works with Brooks’ self-referential style as well as it ever would on film, and it probably has the most laugh-out-loud moments of any of his movies. The special model of camera the crew uses to simulate human vision and hearing is enough to make me laugh every time:

One would've hoped that Brooks would continue in this same vein of bizarre, postmodern comedy, but that was not to be the case. For whatever reason, his directorial career just sort of fizzled out after Defending Your Life, and if his last two efforts are any indication, it shows little promise of picking up. Who knows? Maybe he found so much success as a character actor that his own films just became an afterthought. Whatever the reason, Brooks is still a filmmaker worth recognizing, if only for the distinctive way that he has decided to stake out his career. And in this respect, I suppose he is something of an unrecognized film artist.

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