Let’s take a look at the underappreciated Albert Brooks – director, actor and author. You’ll recognize his face from supporting roles in Taxi Driver, Broadcast News , Out of Sight and Drive, and as the voice of Marlin in Finding Nemo. He’s the author of the novel 2030. However, it’s his work as a director in his comedies, full of likeable but self-absorbed, neurotic characters (usually Californians) and deadpan humor that earn him the nickname the “West Coast Woody Allen.” These are some of Brooks’ finest works as a director.
Real Life (1979) is Brooks’ first film, and also his zaniest. He plays himself – a director who sets out to film a “typical” American family in the style of the 1973 PBS documentary An American Family. However, Brooks is so narcissistic he’s incapable of leaving them be, and employs a number of tactics to make this family, and the film, more interesting. Real Life is a movie ahead of its time – it’s one of the first mockumentaries, and it’s a biting satire of reality television before that genre really existed. It also features Charles Grodin and Frances Lee McCain as the unfortunate subjects of Brooks’ documentary.
Lost in America (1985). Brooks and Julie Hagerty play Los Angeles yuppies David and Linda Howard. Life is great until David loses out on a promotion, and subsequently, his job. Deciding to get in touch with their “real” selves, they sell all their belongings (except for the infamous “nest egg”), buy a Winnebago, and hit the road. It’s not long before couple’s dream fizzles out, to find themselves broke and looking for minimum-wage jobs. This is, hands down, one of THE funniest movies I’ve ever seen, and I’m not alone. It’s #84 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Funniest Movies of All Time.
Defending Your Life (1991) is a sly, warm, thought-provoking comedy. Brooks plays Daniel Miller, who is killed is killed in a car accident in the opening scene. After his death, he finds himself in Judgment City, which looks like heaven (if it were a mall) but is really a way station. Daniel finds he has to “defend his life” – with the help of Rip Torn – to determine if he lived life to the fullest and can go to heaven, or if he has to return to Earth and try again. Meryl Streep is a delight as his love interest, and the movie balances Brooks’ trademark droll humor with the eternal philosophical question – what is life all about?
Mother (1996) is the mellowest film on the list, but don’t let that stop you from appreciating comic genius at work. John is a science-fiction writer, reeling from his second divorce and eager to find out why his relationships with women don’t work. He decides to move back in with his mother Beatrice, (Debbie Reynolds, in a Golden Globe-nominated performance). The movie is not about one-liners so much as it is about recognizing the uncomfortable relationship between parents and their adult children. This is perhaps best portrayed when Beatrice prepares dinner for John – the scene is both awkward and hysterically funny. It’s priceless.