Monday, March 27, 2006

Observations on the film career of Albert Brooks

by Professor Wagstaff
( warning: spoilers will follow)

I watched the remake of the ‘In-Laws’ the other night and while watching Albert Brooks play his part it got me thinking of his directorial efforts from 1985 to 2000 and the trajectory and development (or lack of) of his films.

Looking back over his 1985-2000 directorial efforts, there seems to be a slow and steady decline in his work. I’ve always loved ‘Lost in America’, one of the best comedies of its time. It has at least 4 great scenes (Brooks gets fired, Brooks trying to convince the casino owner to give them their money back, Brooks talking about not using ‘nest egg’, Brooks at the unemployment office). While the ending of Brooks going back to his old job somewhat anti-climatic, it’s probably an appropriate ending in the context of Brooks’ character – going straight back into the rat race. Probably one of the strengths of the film was that Brooks’ whiny, yuppie character felt quite cutting edge when first explored in 1985.

I remember really enjoying ‘Defending Your Life’ when I watched it on video around a decade ago. I watched it on DVD a few months back and to be honest, it was less impressive and funny then I recalled. It had the usual pleasures one expects from a Brooks film and had a nice performance from Meryl Streep but in the end, it wasn’t as memorable as it could’ve been.

I think the problem with it was demonstrated by a scene where we’re shown how nervous Brooks’ character is before he has to do public speaking. The scene falls down because, instead of Brooks acting out his character’s fear and nervousness, we see him tell another character how nervous he is. It just doesn’t convince and therefore the comic potential of the scene is lost.

‘Mother’ is probably about the same standard as ‘DYL’ – reasonably amusing but lacking the inspiration and great scenes that defined ‘LIA’. It benefits from a good revelation at the end about Brook’s mother (well-played by Debbie Reynolds) which brings the film to a satisfying conclusion.

‘The Muse’ (which I saw at the cinema) was a disappointment as Brooks seemed to be just going through the motions and the dilemma of his character wasn’t particularly interesting. After all, Brooks inspiration from ‘the muse’ (well played by Sharon Stone) inspires him to write what sounds like a ho-hum Jim Carrey comedy. Perhaps Brooks was putting in some subtle criticism of the lowly aspirations of Hollywood types but it didn’t make the film any more enjoyable. The ending like ‘Mother was well done, with the revelation as to who the ‘muse’ actually was (a complete fraud) being a nice comment on Hollywood and giving the film extra context and meaning. But overall, this was a limp, even dreary effort where Brooks seemed to have little new to observe or say.

And then we come to the ‘In-Laws’ – while Brooks didn’t write or direct it it’s one of his rare acting performances so it is notable. I think Jeffrey Wells was pretty spot on with his review on this film – it’s no classic but is pretty enjoyable throwaway thanks to a jaunty attitude, the occasional inspired comic bit and a entertaining performance from Douglas.

But one of the things that stood out to me was Brooks performance doing his familiar whiny comic persona – it was fairly amusing but there was a tiredness about it that suggested, not only that we’ve been here before, but that Brooks perhaps should’ve moved on from this.

And that’s perhaps why Brooks’ directorial efforts have fallen away from 1985 to 2000 – he hasn’t really evolved or taken risks with new territory – instead relying on the ‘same old, same old’ and as a result his persona and films have felt increasingly tired. I haven’t seen his latest film ‘Looking for Humour in the Muslim World’ (hasn’t been released in Australia as yet, if ever), but I hope Brooks has in it him to direct one more film that reaches the heights of ‘LIA’.


Blogger Nick said...

I haven't seen Lost In America and Defending Your Life, so maybe that explains why I never 'got' Brooks. The films of his that I've only bothered to see parts of, Mother and The Muse, were smug and boring, so I switched channels.

Mr Brooks seems to hate himself, but there's no tension or point to it, just this breathless defeat. Can't even pity him, since he flaunts his wealth like a fire blanket.

3/27/2006 08:05:00 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

I might be just about the only person on the planet who saw Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World. It's not a great movie by any means, but I thought it was funny.

I remember liking Mother OK, too, but didn't see The Muse. Someday I'll watch his earlier stuff but I'm terrible about renting so it may be a while.

Good post.

3/27/2006 03:27:00 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

I loved defending your life, and liked Mother and The Muse.

I really need to see Lost in America. I'll queue it, and see it 4 months from now since I have like 90 movies in queue.

3/28/2006 10:26:00 AM  
Blogger Colin said...

I loved "Defending Your Life" when it came out, but haven't seen it since. That led me to rent "Lost in America," which I also like quite a bit. I remember "Mother" being okay, but I hardly remember anything about it at all, and I passed on "The Muse."

I've always wanted to track down "Real Life" and "Modern Romance," but I've never gotten around to seeing them.

3/28/2006 10:42:00 AM  
Blogger Professor Wagstaff said...

I should add that I also saw for the first time 'Broadcast News' last week, a film Brooks starred in but didn't write or direct.

I must say, considering its reputation and being nominated for multiple Oscars, I was underwhelmed.

The prologue showing the three central characters as kids was mildly amusing, although it was done in too sitcomish a way to be really effective.

The film started off fairly well but scenes lacked sharpness and purpose that they should've had. And the film was in danger of losing its way in the middle section as it dragged on too long and became dreary for stretches.

(spoiler warning)

However, the last 30 minutes made the film worthwhile imo as the climatic revealing of William Hurt's faked emotion was an apt summation of his character - a bland, superficial know nothing personality which is brought up very well by Hurt's finely textured performance that avoids caricature.

The film is also very perceptive in predicting that what should be negatives - blandness, manipulative, lack of knowledge help ensure him to rise up the ladder of TV in the late 1980s and beyond.

The relationship between Brooks and Hunter also gained some intensity towards the end once Hunter reveals her love for Hurt. Brooks angry reaction was effective and convincing, perhaps because there didn't seem to be that intensity of emotion displayed by anyone up till that stage.

Overall, a fairly good but overrated film.

4/01/2006 12:25:00 AM  

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