A Book Review by Thomas Puhr.

A much-needed overview not just of the filmmaker, but of his enduring cultural impact.”

Read any critical piece on Albert Brooks and you’ll invariably encounter descriptors like “underappreciated” or “overlooked.” But what is meant, exactly, by such labels? After all, two of his films – Lost in America (1985) and Defending Your Life (1991) – have received the Criterion treatment. Even to those who know nothing of his original films, his work as a character actor is instantly recognizable: Tom in Taxi Driver (1976); Rudyard in Terms of Endearment (1983); Marlin in Pixar’s Finding Nemo (2003)and its sequel; Bernie in the instant-classic Drive (2011); even Hank Scorpio in “You Only Move Twice,” which is often ranked among The Simpsons’ best episodes. Oh, and he wrote a New York Times bestselling novel, 2030. Today, the likes of Judd Apatow revere him as no less than a comedy god.

ReFocus: The Films of Albert Brooks

This is hardly a résumé to sneeze at, his spot in comedy and film history having been well-secured for decades now. So, why his frequent relegation to the margins? Perhaps it’s because of how much more famous he could have been (he was almost the “permanent host” of a nascent SNL, before dropping out). Or maybe it’s his comparatively “small” output (seven feature-length directorial efforts). Indeed, he’s one of those “why don’t they make/act in more movies?” figures in Hollywood. While it’s true he never reached the culture-shifting influence of a ‘70s- or ‘80s-era Woody Allen (to whom he is often lazily compared), isn’t that kind of a good thing? Wouldn’t becoming a ubiquitous household name go against his very ethos, one grounded in “[a] combination of frustration and occasional mania” (15)?

In his introduction to the fantastic The Films of Albert Brooks (Edinburgh University Press), the latest in the publishing house’s “ReFocus” series, editor Christian B. Long situates Brooks’ hard-to-pin-down relationship with fame and celebrity. Yes, the actor-writer-director may very well deserve “a wider readership/viewership, both critical and popular,” but even less acknowledged is how his satirical work “offers a useful lens through which to engage American film and culture since the late 1960s” (2). In order to best illustrate this lens, the text’s subsequent essays consider three distinct (but intertwining) facets of his career: his idiosyncratic, trailblazing work as a standup comedian and late-night staple; his efforts behind the camera; and his continuing position as a public figure, one which has come to emblematize everything funny and problematic about the Boomer generation.

The first section, “Brooks as Media Critic,” opens with J.D. Connor’s “Your General Humor Buildup,” which analyzes the comedian’s early multi-modal routines and how they parodied then-flourishing institutions like “The Famous Writers School” and “The Famous Artists School” (56). Just as his features would address economic mobility and consumerism, Brooks’ “Famous School for Comedians” took aim at the notion that comedy is a teachable, sellable “thing”: a commodity like any other. In standout entry “The Counterculture Squared,” Jeff Menne chronicles the comedian’s short-lived tenure at SNL. Ultimately, his gravitation toward film offered an artistic control which live TV never could have provide (80). Additionally, his “performance of desperation that he made his comic métier could not coexist with the SNL sensibility” (91) of feigned ambivalence toward fame and fortune. Let’s take a moment here to collectively sigh in relief that Brooks didn’t take the route of, say, a Dan Aykroyd or Chevy Chase.

Blu-Ray Review: Defending Your Life – Backseat Mafia
Defending Your Life

“Brooks as Auteur,” the book’s second (and by far longest) section, focuses almost exclusively on his directorial outings. Long’s opening chapter, “When Success is Failure,” neatly explicates many of his common tropes, including the following: expository scenes of “a neurotic man poorly explaining himself to an infinitely patient woman” (125); a preoccupation with the medium itself, as well as its complex intersections with “real life” (123); and denouements which offer “a kind of success that looks and feels very much like a failure” (133). The remaining chapters, save for the final entry, home in on some of his most highly-regarded films: Modern Romance (1981), Lost in America, and Defending Your Life. Of these, Frank Percaccio’s analysis of the latter is especially intriguing, as it triangulates the afterlife-set comedy with its literary forebear, Dante’s Purgatorio, and Foucault’s conceptualization of the surveillance state (174).

Rebecca Bell-Metereau’s aforementioned final essay to Part II, “Albert Brooks Channeling the Feminine,” is an essential addition to scholarship on the filmmaker. Besides giving due credit to Brooks’ frequent writing partner, the late/great Monica Johnson, she also introduces an intriguing new trope: male characters who “often careen between extremes of manic aggressive behavior and despondent inaction” and women characters who “take the lead, breaking out of feminine stereotypes of passivity or coyness” (192). It’s worth mentioning, Bell-Metereau notes, how Brooks often wears “feminized” gowns, from Defending Your Life’s omnipresent white tunics, to the “elaborate embroidered costumes” (203) he obliviously dons in Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (2005).

Lost in America (1985) – Midnight Only
Lost in America

The last two chapters, grouped under “Brooks as Cultural Figure,” consider films which seem – at least on the face of things – to be cases of playing way against type. For writer Dietmar Meinel, Finding Nemo allowed for an “integration of a sense of ‘new sincerity’ into his established persona” (213) because of its focus on fatherhood in a post-9/11 America (this contributor’s interpretation of the Pixar favorite is worth a read in and of itself). Regarding Refn’s Cannes-winning Drive, writer Tom Ue posits that mobster Bernie – like Brooks’ comparatively milder protagonists of years past – shares a similar preoccupation with financial instability (226). Through a children’s film and a stylish revenge drama, Brooks had a unique opportunity to recast (but not entirely cast aside) the carefully curated image that is “Albert Brooks.”

As a whole, The Films of Albert Brooks proves itself a much-needed overview not just of the filmmaker, but of his enduring cultural impact. At the end of the day, Brooks seems to have had his cake and eaten it too, earning a niche group of devotees among scholars, comedy nerds, and filmmakers (see Ari Aster’s glowing appreciation of Defending Your Life) while garnering international attention for his diverse acting gigs. “Brooks’s [sic] most popular films, in terms of box office success, are not his own films,” Long points out, “but those in which he is an actor-for-hire, not an auteur, an ironic but fitting summary of his career” (132). Surely this irony isn’t lost on the man himself. I suspect he wouldn’t want it any other way.

Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy BeastBirth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.

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