July 2016 may be National Albert Brooks month.
Aside from the introduction of his branded nebbish-y charm to a new generation of fans with his voiceover turns in “Finding Dory” and “Secret Life of Pets”, Netflix has managed to wrangle the legendary comedian’s entire collection of films he made as a writer/director/actor and make them available to subscribers all summer long. Often labeled as a “West Coast Woody Allen”, Brooks spun off as one of the most off-beat stand-ups of the 70s to become an acclaimed auteur of grounded and perceptive comedies about life in modern America. Though his movies aren’t talked about or quoted as much as Allen’s, it’s near impossible to watch a single one of them without laughing until you lose bladder control, or seeing beats that have been picked up by some of today’s comedy behemoths like Judd Apatow and Larry David.
While Albert Brooks has been making movies since the late 70s, you may be surprised by the short return you get when you type his name into your search engine. In a filmmaking career that spans four decades, he’s only managed to roll out seven of them as a director. In any case, these seven movies are gems of comedy, and you should seize this rare opportunity to see every one of them before Netflix takes them away. If you don’t have time to do a binge, however, then check out this list of his best to… (well, I don’t want to say worse – that’s like making a Sophie’s Choice!
1. “Lost in America” (1985)
‘I’ve seen the future! It’s a bald man from New York!’
Forget stopping with this list. It’s hard to imagine any countdown of great American comedies without seeing “Lost in America” at the top of the heap. After getting fired from a job that’s consumed his youth and drained his ambition, David Howard (Brooks) cashes in everything and hits the road with his wife Linda to “touch Indians” and “see the mountains and the prairies and the whole rest of that song”. But first, a quick stop by Las Vegas.
This is one of the great nightmare vacation movies, scarier even than Chevy Chase’s trip to Wally World because you get the feeling that someone, somewhere out there, is going through this very thing, naively trying to game the system “Easy Rider”-style and losing a hundred thousand dollars of nest egg along the way. David and Linda’s pilgrimage crash lands before it even begins, and when David finds himself broke and sitting in a small town Arizona unemployment office, you’re feeling that you may want to humble yourself the next time you don’t get that promotion you’ve been counting on.
2. “Defending Your Life” (1991)
'Try not to show me the 750 first. My car looks like a turd now.'
After he gets hit by a bus, Daniel Miller (Brooks) wakes up in a strange purgatory where pancakes are free and hotel bellboys don’t take tips. Everything seems perfect in this new world of guilt-free excess until Daniel finds out that he must defend his life to a tribunal of judges before he can move on. But before you go thinking that Albert Brooks is the new Kirk Cameron, these judges aren’t interested in a man’s moral turpitude, but whether or not he has spent his life overcoming fear and taking risks. This presents Daniel, a consummate cynic, with a problem. We’re shown through flashbacks (presented as “exhibits” at his trial) of times throughout his life when he kowtowed to pressure, gave into threats, and made poor, fear-based decisions like refusing to invest in an up-and-coming company called Sony.
“Defending Your Life" is Brooks’s most philosophical comedy, and in many ways ties the themes of his movies all together. It also gave Rip Torn the role of a lifetime as Daniel’s chummy, tough-as-nails lawyer, which went on to land him his nine season run on “The Larry Sanders Show”. It should also be said that all of Albert Brooks’s movies – as great as they are – have so-so endings, but this movie has a GREAT ending.
3. “Modern Romance” (1981)
'That’s not "Hulk Running" – you should write "Hulk Sceaming"'
Brooks plays Robert Cole, a film editor who works on cheap sci-fi movies starring George Kennedy and is having a modern romance with his girlfriend, which, in Brooks’s film language, means an on-again/off-again thunderdome of neuroses, paranoia, and talking stuffed animals. This may be one of the great movies to watch while you’re going through a break-up. Watching Robert trying to assemble all the aspects of his life – work, love, physical fitness, etc. – into a perfect package of bliss rings truer than anything he’s ever written, and the first forty minutes of the movie where he tries to get over his most recent break-up by taking two Quaaludes and listening to “A Fifth of Beethoven” is the funniest he’s ever been as an actor.
4. “Mother” (1996)
'Your wife’s doing very well, especially her balls.'
5. “REAL LIFE” (1979)
'We’re all gonna be on Jonas Salk’s coffee table!'
“Mother” could be a sequel to “Modern Romance”. This time Brooks plays David Henderson, a writer who works on cheap sci-fi books and is so mired in existential gloom after his second divorce that he’s decided to give up on adulthood altogether and move back in with his mother. Debbie Reynolds, an old friend of Brooks’s, who once tried to set him up in real life with her daughter, Princess Leia, plays the mother smartly. She’s a woman in her golden years who loves her son – really, she does -- but finally has the house to herself after years of raising him and is understandably a little lukewarm to taking him back in. This movie can be meandering at times, but it’s at its best in the prolonged ping-pong conversations between Brooks and Reynolds, where they debate everything from big giant alien heads to buying fancy jam at the supermarket.
Brook’s first and most experimental film was a spin off from the short subjects he made for the first season of SNL (a show he was almost the permanent host of), and a satire of the first reality show, PBS’s “The Loud Family”. Brooks’s idea was to wildly forecast a media landscape in which no one’s life is private, and everyone is selling themselves for a little air time. Forty years later, “Real Life” is like a mouse squeaking across a church floor compared to where reality television has gone, but it still has enough funny to sustain its dated premise, and, like “Defending Your Life”, a fat muscle for philosophy.
Here, Albert Brooks plays himself, a comedian with a hobby in social science, who conducts a series of tests with thousands of families to determine whose lives would be the best to invade for one year. The experiment is a disaster from day one when the tests turn out a tie between two families, and Brooks chooses the one from sunny Phoenix because, as he says while laughing dismissively, “YOU spend the winter in Wisconsin!” Charles Grodin (the dad from “Beethoven”) and Francis Lee McCain (the mom from “Gremlins”) are great as the family whose lives are under a microscope, and never can get past their petty bickering to yield anything interesting for the cameras. As the dad spirals into depression and the mom develops a crush on Brooks, the movie keenly questions whether or not any scenario, once it has a camera on it, can be real life.
6. “LOOKING FOR COMEDY IN THE MUSLIM WORLD” (2007)
'Write down that Polish jokes are always funny.'
Brooks’s only post-9/11 comedy is both a great throwback to the meta-humor he started out with in the 70s and a satire of the hopeless xenophobia of the United States in the new century. After other comedians are unavailable, the US government enlists out-of-work actor Albert Brooks to travel to India and find out what makes Muslims laugh. Like “Ishtar” meets “Moneyball”, Brooks has a lot of fun here jabbing the bean-counting establishment that loves to quantify the abstract, as his character is constantly obsessing over turning in the 500-page report of his findings to Congress (“They never read em’, but they weigh em’”!).
7. “The Muse” (1999)
'Can’t you just see Jim Carrey dealing with all these sick fish!'
When veteran actor Gig Young finally won an Oscar after years in the business, he wasn’t at all elated, but profoundly depressed; he was well aware of the old theory that getting an award was the industry’s way of telling you to retire. “The Muse” explores this theory in the life of screenwriter Stephen Phillips (Brooks), who’s gotten a lot of acclaim for his work, but after he wins a humanitarian award, feels he’s being politely pushed aside. His suspicions are confirmed after a meeting with his agent as well as Stephen Spielberg’s brother (really funny cameo by Stephen Wright), who tell him that he’s “lost his edge”. Not ready to give up just yet, Stephen recruits professional muse Sharon Stone to bring him a little inspiration, and renew that flare for writing that he once had.
“The Muse” doesn’t have the lofty ambition to get you thinking like a lot of his other movies, but it’s still a perfectly serviceable comedy that explores the role creativity can take on in our lives when it’s treated as a commodity. There’s also some good insider information here when Brooks dives into the process of creating one of those big budget Jim Carry summer comedies.