Friday, November 4, 2011

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Real Life (1979)

Real Life (1979) ***
Directed by: Albert Brooks.
Written by: Albert Brooks and Monica Mcgowan Johnson and Harry Shearer.
Starring: Albert Brooks (Albert Brooks), Charles Grodin (Warren Yeager), Frances Lee McCain (Jeannette Yeager), Lisa Urette (Lisa Yeager), Robert Stirrat (Eric Yeager), Matthew Tobin (Dr. Howard Hill), J.A. Preston (Dr. Ted Cleary).

I’ve always been a fan of Albert Brooks. From his own movies – including Lost in America (1985), Defending Your Life (1991) and Mother (1996) which are three of the funniest movies you will ever see – to his work for other director – like Broadcast News, Taxi Driver and Finding Nemo – to his seemingly endless string of Simpsons guest voices (the best of which is probably Hank Scorpio), Brooks has always made me laugh more than most other actors. And recently in Drive, he scared me, which was shocking because for the most part, Brooks plays a thinly veiled version of himself in his roles. Somehow though, I had never seen his first two films. His first film, Real Life, shows just how talented and funny Brooks can be – as a writer, director and an actor, and while it doesn’t rise to the level of his best work, it is still damn funny. And considering how reality TV has risen since he made this film, it seems almost prophetic at times.

In the film Brooks plays Albert Brooks, a version of himself. He is a filmmaker and standup comedian who has garnered some notoriety because of his short films on Saturday Night Live, and now he wants to move onto feature films. But he doesn’t want to do a scripted movie. Inspired by the groundbreaking PBS series American Family, Brooks wants to make a film documenting the life of one year in the life of the typical American family. In order to ensure they pick the right family, they select 200 to undergo rigorous testing in a “scientific” setting, including role playing games and driving tests. He ends up with two choices, one who lives in Phoenix and the other who lives in Green Bay. Not wanting to spend the winter in Green Bay, he picks the Phoenix family. Husband Warren (Charles Grodin), a vet, his neurotic wife Jeannette (Frances Lee McCain) and their two children – Lisa and Eric. He even sends them to Hawaii for two weeks, so he and his crew can get set up and not disturb them. When they get back, they’ll get right to filming American life as it really is. They have even got a new camera, which will capture life as the human eye does, and is said to be less intrusive, as it gives the camera men more freedom to move around. The fact that the camera is a helmet that looks like a storm trooper out of Star Wars doesn’t seem to phase Brooks. In fact he brags “Only six of these cameras were ever made; only five of them ever worked – we have four of those”. Brooks moves in across the street to monitor the filming, and even hires two psychologists to ensure that they do not put too much of a strain on the family.

What Brooks find though, is what scientists have long known. That the simple act of observing can change the families behavior. And when you have a filmmaker like Brooks, all manic energy, he’s not just observing but becomes an active participant in the drama. When Warren messes up a surgery on a horse, and they capture it on film, he falls into a deep depression, and simply sits around the house all day doing nothing. This won’t do for Brooks. He needs action and excitement, and he tries to goose the family along. He dresses up like a clown to try and make everyone happy, and then tries to counsel the wife when she gets cold feet. With nothing else happening, he even thinks that perhaps he can make something happen with her – even suggesting the possibility of an affair. And of course, he needs a big finale – and he’s determined to get one.

Some of the best moments in the film are little, throwaway visual gags. I love every scene with the guys with the monstrous cameras on their heads, which were supposed to be unobtrusive. Often times, we see them running in the background of a shot, and it never failed to bring a smile to my face. And the performances work as well. Grodin has always been a talented comedic actor, and this is some of his better work, as the normal guy, clearly uncomfortable on camera, and trying too hard. And Brooks himself, is, as always, hilarious.

In 1979, the idea of reality TV was still in its infancy. Brooks admired the American Family PBS series, and thought it would be funny to extend it to see the filmmakers behind the scenes movements as well. Now of course, all you need to get a reality TV show is to be a B list star from the 1980s or have the last name Kardashian (by the way, I still have no idea who the Kardashians are, or why I should care about their lives). If they have “typical American families” on reality TV, it’s because they are either little people, or don’t know about birth control. Brooks saw the comedic possibilities in all of this years before it really hit the big time, and Real Life is an insightful comedy about the whole phenomenon. Still, I think had he waited a few decades to make Real Life, he could have made a truly great comedy, not just a good one.

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