Underrated Movie #108: Real Life

Title: Real Life
Year: 1978
Director: Albert Brooks
Writers: Albert Brooks, Monica Johnson and Harry Shearer
Stars: Albert Brooks, Charles Grodin, Frances Lee McCain

The Story: Brooks plays a megalomaniacal version of himself as a comedian/filmmaker making an unprecedented documentary by moving into the house of a typical American family for a year and recording everything they do (on something called “digital video”). When the family doesn’t turn out to be interesting enough, Brooks begins interfering in their lives more and more, driving everybody insane, especially himself.

How it Came to be Underrated: Brooks was way ahead of his time in terms of his post-modern self-awareness and his comedy of awkwardness, not to mention his satire of reality TV. Still, I don’t know why this isn’t well-known as one of the great ground-breaking comedies of the ‘70s.

Why It’s Great:
  1. Brooks is satirizing the very first reality show “An American Family” which aired on PBS in 1973, profiling the Loud family of Santa Barbara, who were filmed in their home for a year. Over the course of the year, the family broke up, leading to endless debates about whether or not that would have happened if the cameras hadn’t been there. Brooks was actually a fan of the show, but he couldn’t resist wondering what would happened if a traditional Hollywood buffoon was in charge (predicting the future of reality TV). Brooks quickly resorts to tricks like giving the family a big-screen TV to cheer them up so that he can get happier footage (note the cameramen in their helmet-cams, always lurking in the background.)
  2. This is one of the most deadpan comedies ever made. Instead of constant laughter, you just get an increasingly nervous grin on your face for long periods at a time until suddenly the absurdity overwhelms you and start laughing out loud with little provocation. Then you quiet down and the process starts again.
  3. In drama it’s good if characters don’t really listen to each other, but in comedy it’s essential. They can’t hear each other and they can’t hear themselves. Brooks plays a basically decent man who nevertheless can’t open his mouth without puffing himself up in the most disingenuous possible way: “I’m an entertainer but, quite frankly, if I’d studied harder —or been graded more fairly— I would have been a doctor or a scientist.”
  4. I showed the VHS to everybody I could find back in the ‘90s but I’d never seen the DVD. I was very glad I watched it, because it includes the trailer (which has nothing to do with the movie) showing just how far ahead of its time the satire of this movie is. Somehow Brooks had his finger on the pulse of 2011 back in 1978. Watch this, it’s hilarious:

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Brooks’s next movie Modern Romance is just as good and even more forgotten. (And his third and fourth movies have already been covered here.) Another hilarious ‘70s satire that accurately predicted the rise of reality TV was Death Race 2000.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD with the trailer and a short, funny retrospective interview with Brooks from 2000.

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Underrated Movie #24: Defending Your Life

Title: Defending Your Life
Year: 1990
Director: Albert Brooks (Real Life, Modern Romance, Lost in America)
Writer: Albert Brooks
Stars: Albert Brooks, Meryl Streep, Rip Torn

The Story: A middle-aged schlub gets hit by a bus and finds himself in a Disneyland-like afterlife, where he’s put on trial to defend his long record of bad decisions.

How it Came to be Underrated: Like Lost in America, this was another Brooks film that didn’t find a find much of an audience outside of his regular fans.

Why It’s (almost) Great:

  1. This was Brooks’s first movie without his long-time co-writer Monica Goodman, and it's less lively than his first three. Seeing it again, I found it a little pokey, but it’s wonderfully pleasant and thought-provoking. In the end, it’s a good movie based on a great idea.
  2. Especially after re-watching Doubt, it was great to see Streep getting a rare chance to be funny and sexy. She’s just as good at playing a big ball of sunshine as she is being a black hole of judgment.
  3. Brooks gives some of the best dialogue to Rip Torn’s glad-handing afterlife defense attorney. Brooks asks, “So I’m on trial for being afraid?” Torn responds, “First of all, I don’t like to call it a trial. Second of all, yes.” Later, he helpfully tries to reassure Brooks: “You wouldn’t understand. Oh, I don’t mean that as an insult, I mean it literally.”
  4. What powers the movie is the underlying guilt of modern-day consumer-driven society. Brooks fears that one day he’ll finally have to ask himself the most dreadful question of all: “Am I just a boob?” How could we ever justify our mundane existence? We know we’re supposed to care about justice, but we really just care about going to the Sizzler.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Streep didn’t get another chance to be this relaxed until Adaptation. Brooks doesn’t just write and direct, he’s also acted in some great movies for other directors, such as Broadcast News.

How Available Is It?: The Watch Instantly version is unfortunately “pan n’ scan”. I don’t know about the dvd.

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Underrated Movie #3: Lost in America

Title: Lost in America
Year: 1985
Director: Albert Brooks
Writers: Albert Brooks and Monica Johnson
Stars: Albert Brooks (Broadcast News), Julie Hagerty (Airplane, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy)

The Story:
A middle-class L.A. couple decide to sell all their stuff, buy a Winnebago, and rediscover the American Dream, which turns out to be a nightmare. When a ill-timed stop in Vegas leaves them with nothing, they realize what it means to really start over.

How it Came to be Underrated: Brooks made ‘70s movies in the ‘80s, and no one knew what to do with them.

Why It’s Great:

  1. It’s really, really funny. Okay, it’s a little bit funnier if you have a job. Watching it again now, unemployed, it stings a little bit, but in a good way. My favorite moment is when Brooks, now a crossing guard, makes one final stand for dignity: “Don’t Call Me Retardo.”

  2. The movie begins with Brooks, lying awake in bed next to his sleeping wife, worry about his big promotion, and listening to the radio, where boob movie reviewer Rex Reed is complaining all the sex in modern movies. Yes, we’re supposed to roll our eyes, but not because we’re about to see any nudity. Brooks just wants us to think about what movies choose to show and what they don’t. Every year we watch a dozen movies set in L.A., but they’re never about L.A. They’re about lost places and lost times and lost emotions. Brooks isn’t interested in all that. Brooks’ movies don’t attempt to summon up the feeling of a lost era or invest life with an operatic intensity. He’s genuinely interested in the world around him. He wants to capture what the world actually looks like and how people actually act. Not because he wants to make us feel bad but because he wants to make us laugh and we’re going to laugh harder if it seems real and hits home.
  3. Brooks helped pioneer the comedy of awkward existential suffering that has now become a jackpot for Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm) and Ricky Gervais (The Office), but he did it differently. Gervais invites us to scorn the self-serving characters he plays and David invites us join in on his scorn for modern life, but Brooks mined the same vein in a scorn-free way. Brooks’ characters are almost always in the wrong, but we support them because we wish the world could work the way they want it to. On the other hand, we’re equally sympathetic to the poor saps who have to endure his meltdowns.
  4. The comedy of awkwardness thrives on lingering deadpan reaction shots, drawn-out moments and scenes pushed to their painful breaking points, and yet, at 90 minutes, this movie still moves at a brisk pace. The secret is the use of ellipses. For these characters, making each decision is like pulling teeth, but once the decision is made, we jump way ahead and see the consequence, without a lot of pipe-laying in between. The movie is essentially a series of 10 9-minutes scenes, each one of which has the rise and fall of a hilarious one-act play.

Underrated Compared To: How many bad comedies became mega-hits in the 80s?

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Brooks first four films were all underseen gems. The others are Real Life (1978), Modern Romance (1980), and Defending Your Life (1990).

How Available Is It?: It’s on Netflix to “Watch Instantly” right now, and a DVD is in print. Unfortunately, the instant version has a 4:3 aspect ratio, so I suspect that this is a “pan-n-scan” version. I don’t know about the dvd.

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