Brooks, Albert: Indie Filmmaker (Lost in America, Defending Your Life, Mother)

The paucity of Jewish-themed movies made by Jewish directors in the new indie cinema may be a result of the fact that Jewish humor has become integrated into the mainstream through the work of such prominent filmmakers and writers as Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Paul Mazursky, and Neil Simon. Of the younger generation of Jewish filmmakers, the most interesting figure is Albert Brooks, whose movies are studio-financed, but still manage to display a feisty independent spirit. The best of Brooks’ bitingly personal satires revolve around Jewish yuppies.

Jewish-American Humor

A most incisive screen comedian, Brooks imbues his satires with acidic humor and criticism. The son of radio comedian Harry Einstein (better known as Parkya Karkus), he grew up with the ridiculous name of Albert Einstein–and a morbid outlook to match. “My father died when I was young,” Brooks recalled, “it made a very strong impression on me. I got to see the end of life before I saw the beginning.” Brooks made some shorts for the first season of Saturday Night Live, including the parody LP, A Star Is Bought (1976), a catalogue of radio modes in which he played most roles. As an actor, he has appeared in other directors’ films: as Goldie Hawn’s husband in Private Benjamin, as the talented but luckless TV journalist in Broadcast News, and most recently as an obnoxious Wall Street raider in Soderbergh’s Out of Sight.

However, Brooks is truly inspired when he delivers his own sarcastic material, in such original movies as Real Life (1979), Modern Romance (l981), Lost in America (1985).

Brooks has played variations of the same character in most of his films–the smart, fast-talking, indefatigable climber who’s always defeated by one force or another. His screen persona is that of a friendly but aggressive educated man, who has obsessively dedicated himself to a single idea, and in the process has become blind to other interests. Exhaustingly intelligent yet deeply foolish underneath, Brooks’s men are pathetically sincere. His comedies are studies in humiliation and defeat, farces of insecurity and desperation. No wonder mainstream success has eluded him–Brooks’ characters are too egotistical and overbearing.

Like most sharp comics, Brooks is a loquacious monologuist at once self-critical and self-glorifying. His early movies are like one-man shows, in which his persona is both embraced and lacerated. Brooks is more maniacally self-indulgent than his equally control-freak peers, Woody Allen and Steve Martin. However, refusing to pander to the audience, Brooks has dissociated himself from other comics-turned-filmmakers, such as Marty Feldman or Gene Wilder.

In Real Life, Brooks plays a comedian turned “cinema-verite” director setting out to record a “typical” American family, and in the process succeeds in destroying what he’s studying. The movie is so deft at showing how filmmaking distorts the very reality it purports to record, that it’s hard to watch family documentaries anymore without thinking of Real Life. A satire aimed at revealing the truth about TV’s “slice-of-life” non-fictional fare, the movie was inspired by the PBS series An American Family. It illustrates the absurdity of TV’s reality mongers, from PBS’s cinema verite to CBS’s Charles Kuralt. Brooks scores off the pretensions of “realism” and the stuffiness of scientific techniques in sampling the “typical” family.

Real Life

The typical family in Real Life are the Yeagers (Charles Grodin and Frances Lee McCain), residents of Phoenix. Brooks records their daily functions as well as those of his own as a director: Real Life is a fictional movie about a real-life comic recording the ‘real life’ of fictional characters. With false reassurance, Brooks guarantees Mrs. Yeager on her way to see a gynecologist, that “I won’t film anything that’ll embarrass you, I couldn’t use it anyway, I’m locked into a PG.” Of course, everything goes wrong, and the gynecologist is infuriated, not so much over the invasion of his patient’s privacy, but because he already has had terrible experiences with a “60 Minutes” expose of “baby slave auctions.”

Real Life follows the adventures of a crew as they proceed in cinema verite and deadpan manner to pester the Yeagers’ lives, invade their privacy mercilessly. Brooks films the family from odd, unflattering angles, never allowing them a peaceful moment. Real Life is an account of one man’s crusade to capture “all the truth and wisdom that money can buy.” It never occurs to the fanatic director that he is warping reality. Assisted by a crew that wear their cameras over their heads, he captures the veterinary Dr. Yeager as he inadvertently kills a horse on the operating table. When the family falls into a deep depression, Brooks shows up in a clown outfit that only makes matters worse. A proponent of spontaneous, unrehearsed reality, he fails to see that his presence is pushing the family into nervous breakdown.

Brooks stubbornly claims that show business has a perfect right to be everywhere. But, finally, an exasperated studio chief (a disembodied phone voice played by real-life studio executive Jennings Lang) shuts down the project, sternly reminding Brooks that reality, like any other commodity, needs the right packaging to be sold. By the end, the Yeagers cling precariously to sanity.

The writing is inspired, with a wonderful opening sequence in which Brooks announces his project to a cross-section of Phoenix citizens, shamelessly flattering the banality of their lives, playing them the way Merv Griffin orchestrate his Vegas patrons. Brooks explains at the beginning of his film that his idea was to “depict day-to-day living in contemporary America, and at the same time hold a motion picture audience spellbound.” Rationalizing later why the project strayed so far from the original plan, he says: “There’s no law that says we can’t start real and end fake.” Brooks reveals a sophisticated ear for the double-talk of Hollywood self-promoters in an insider’s movie for audiences hip to the cliches of the media. Satirizing his own profession, Brooks is the type who fools everyone else with fake sincerity–“I’m a shallow guy,” he tells Mrs. Yeager as she begins to show interest in him.

Brooks has good comic insights, but his exposure of showbiz fakery is a series of routines. He’s still a stand-up comedian, whose relentless bursts of energy are extended riffs. Ultimately, Real Life feels like a 30-minute gag stretched to a one-note feature. Brooks’s performance doesn’t help much: he’s like an aggressive emcee who doesn’t know when to turn the show over to his guests. If Real Life is not as successful as it should be, it’s due to Brooks’ overwhelming ego; in future films, Brooks would give the other characters more space to maneuver.

Modern Romance

Modern Romance (1981), Brooks’ second film, reworks the formula of boy-loses-girl-boy-wins-girl. Brooks plays a neurotic film editor, obsessively devoted to Mary Harvard (Kathryn Harrold), but unable to build a normal relationship. Full with theories about what relationships should be, he hardly looks at the girl he first kicks out, then furiously pursues. Alternately irritating and hilarious, the film brims with in-jokes about filmmaking.

Lost in America

Brooks’ chef d’oeuvre, Lost in America (1985), is a sharply observed satire about disillusioned yuppies who take to the road in an ill-fated attempt to “find themselves.” More open and generous than his previous films, and with an hero who’s less obnoxious, the movie became Brooks’ first commercial success. David Howard, a thirtysomething yuppie at a big L.A. ad firm, anticipates promotion to vice-president after eight years of hard work. He and his wife Linda (Julie Hagerty) have purchased a new house and plan to buy a Mercedes sedan. They belong to the new corporate narcissists, who define their lives by conspicuous consumption. Each extravagant purchase leads to a bigger one, but there’s always something wrong: the new car costs over $40,000, but doesn’t have leather seats.

Instead of receiving his promotion, David is offered a new account and immediate transfer to New York. Since his whole life has been leading up to that promotion, his failure is a repudiation of his life. Disgusted and enraged, David quits his job, and puts pressure on his wife to quit hers too. After the initial shock, David gets inspired, suggesting to sell their possessions and buy a mobile home and wander wherever the impulse takes them–“It’s just like Easy Rider, only now it’s our turn.” That movie made a lasting impression on him as the ultimate image of freedom, and they leave L.A. in their new Winnebago to the tune of “Born to Be Wild.” David embraces his new capacity as a self-proclaimed social dropout with his customary baravado.

Lost in America was the first inspired comedy in a cycle of films about a yuppie’s mid-life crisis. “Nothing’s changing anymore. We’ve just stopped,” Linda says, not realizing that their options are just going to get bleaker. The adaptable Linda starts out as a tower of strength, but crumbles at a Vegas dice table, where she loses the family’s worshipped “nest egg” with hysterical abandon. In the film’s most hilarious scene, David makes a stab at persuading the casino owner (Garry K. Marshall) that his generosity would be good for the image of the place.

Nominally a road movie, Lost in America is basically an anti-travel movie, a yuppie anthem, as Andrew Sarris has noted, alongside Bruce Springsteen’s blue-collar ballad, “Born in the U.S.” The cross-country odyssey becomes an abbreviated, object-lesson voyage into America’s landscape of the 1980s.

Lost in America is still Brooks’ most darkly comic movie, with humor inherent in the dismal progression of disasters, but it’s also his most forgiving. Nothing works–David is unqualified for anything but his old ad job and his subsequent one as a school crossing guard–and at the end, he and Linda crawl back to society, begging for mercy. The movie dissects mercilessly yuppie materialism and then mercifully emerges from the depths of disaster to a realism about life in today’s America.

Defending Your Life

Defending Your Life (1991), which Warners distributed, also boasts an independent spirit. It belongs to the life-after-death genre (Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Heaven Can Wait), but whereas most filmmakers treat this subject whimsically, Brooks turns earnest and by his standards conventional. Brooks plays an L.A. yuppie, Daniel Miller, who crashes his new BMW convertible and dies. The movie is set in purgatory, Judgement City, which looks like the San Fernando Valley with manicured lawns, wrap around glass mini-skyscrapers, smiling people who greet everyone with “have a nice day.”

Daniel is put on trial with a defense attorney (Rip Torn) and a prosecutor (Lee Grant), who examine scenes from his life projected onscreen. Not surprisingly, they are mostly scenes of defeat, in which Daniel allowed himself to be shamed by a bully or failed to invest in a company that later became profitable. Daniel’s life was dominated by fear. If he can prove now that he has conquered fear, he will go on to a higher form of existence, in which humans use a larger portion of their brains. But if found guilty of cowardice, he’ll be sent back to Earth. A new romance with a fearless person (Meryl Streep) is used to test whether Daniel has the courage to date, or be held back by fear.

The production, with crowds in hospital robes walking in the sterile corridors, is visually impressive. However, neither a comedy nor a morality tale, Defending Your Life is more like a long, earnest therapy session whose lesson, “seize the day,” is not complex enough a guiding motif for a full-length comedy. Brooks never specifies what’s wrong with being sent back to Earth. Why is it a failure


For people who believe that a son can never go home again, Mother (1996), co-written by Brooks and Monica Johnson, came as a surprise. Sci-fi writer John Henderson (Brooks) realizes after two divorces that if he doesn’t straighten out his relationship with his mother Beatrice (Debbie Reynolds), he’ll never have stable relationships with women. He moves back home, trying to figure out what went wrong, hoping to find answers that will make him happier. But as soon as John moves back home, he upsets his family’s life. He can’t conceal his jealousy of his younger, more successful brother (Rob Morrow), and he’s shocked to find out that his mother has a boyfriend and that a mother doesn’t hide in a closet when her children grow older. Beatrice pretends she’s helpless, but she’s independent and strong and actually likes her new world and privacy.

One of the few films–independent or studio–to deal with a mother-son relationship in a comic yet realistic way, Mother was prompted by Brooks’ feeling that, as he said: “American movies show two kinds of mothers. The first kind thinks that every single thing their children do is perfect and their children are God’s gift to the world. And then there’s the other kind. My movie is about the other kind.”

Mother raises some intriguing questions: Did John (and by implication, all children) move out of their families and go on to adulthood too early Do children really understand their mothers It also conveys children’s universal fear of winding up exactly like their mothers. It’s a tribute to the film’s success that at the end all three characters are awakened to a new awareness and a new life: Mother and two sons are forced to reexamine the real meaning of family.