Real Life: Albert Brooks’ Impressive Debut, Starring Charles Grodin

In Real Life, Albert Brooks’s debut, the writer-director-actor 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 could potentially and dangerously distort 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.

The “typical” family at the center of Real Life are the Yeagers (Charles Grodin and Frances Lee McCain), residents of Phoenix, Arizona.

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.