Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Affinity #22

The Collection Project Film of the Day:

Albert Brooks has made, by my count, three classic films (four, depending on how I feel about Defending Your Life on the day you ask me): Real Life, Lost in America and Modern Romance. I honestly believe that, in the world of comedy filmmaking, where sustaining a comic premise and making it consistently funny is a frickin' ballbuster, this is a considerable achievement. Modern Romance, which Brooks wrote with frequent collaborator Monica Johnson, is, in particular, not just a classic, but a comic masterpiece (it's this film, in fact, that led Stanley Kubrick to contact Brooks and express his deep admiration for his work, which, in turn, led to the two men developing a long distance friendship -- it ended only when Brooks casually, and naturally, suggested he visit Kubrick at his home). Watching the film again -- as I am actually doing right now as we speak -- is something of a revelation, despite the fact that I've seen it numerous times over the years.

The premise of Modern Romance is simple. Brooks plays Robert Cole, a film editor, who, as the film opens, breaks up with his on-again-off-again girlfriend Mary (Kathryn Harrold), and immediately enters a neurotic, lonely tailspin. This tailspin accounts for about the first half of the film, said half containing one of the greatest performances in comedy. This performance is delivered, of course, by Brooks, as he blunders through a number of scenes and set-pieces that could function as exquisite, self-contained sketches. The first of these involves his first night alone after the break-up. He's fortified himself with a couple of Quaaludes given to him by his assistant editor, Jay (the late, deeply lamented Bruno Kirby). So he spends the night alone, doped up, making phone calls he has no business making ("I have love for you, Ellen"), and taking calls when he should have just let the phone ring ("You're Mr. Trashcan!"). This scene lasts a good ten minutes or more --it's like the comedy version of Inglourious Basterds tavern scene -- and sets up only one bit of plot, which isn't even plot, but another joke that he pays off about fifteen minutes later. All of this, all these great, hilarious throw-away moments ("Petey, if you were a guy, he'd love you. Or if he were a bird you'd love him") that serve no purpose beyond being funny and establishing Cole's character, when the prevailing wisdom in narrative filmmaking is that if something doesn't serve the story, it has to go. Much of the first half of Modern Romance doesn't serve the story, and that's part of the reason it's so wonderful. Remember, Robert Cole is a film editor, so were he cutting Modern Romance he'd probably chop the hell out it.

Speaking of which, in the film's second half, after he's started back up with Mary, we see Robert at work, editing a "space picture" for David, a nervous and myopic director (a truly funny James L. Brooks). Robert and Jay are shown trying to add suspense to a deeply ridiculous bit of the film that features George Kennedy (as himself) shouting orders at his men, and, later, trying to add the kind of forceful sound effect ("Hawmp hawmp hawmp!") to a shot of Kennedy running down a hallway that David thinks will save the second half of the picture. Again, these scenes are long -- Brooks takes his time with them, in order to pull out all the subtle comedy from their situations, which he accomplishes through uncommonly sharp dialogue and easy, natural acting.

There are no comedies like this now, with this kind of loose structure, and the curiosity for the kind of side alleys represented by Robert's job in film editing. Brooks is often compared to Woody Allen, but even Allen -- the funny Allen -- at his best, which is considerable, is more concerned with the classic one-liner style of comedy that Allen saw perfected by his heroes, like Bob Hope. Brooks just let things be funny. His style was one of great patience and confidence.

I say "was", because following Defending Your Life, in 1991, Brooks seems to be floundering. His three subsequent films -- Mother, The Muse and Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World -- have offered diminishing returns. They're not bad films, but they are significantly less funny than the astonishing, humbling work he did from 1979, when Real Life came out, through 1991. The funniest stuff in Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is when Brooks is simply recycling his old (and brilliant) stand-up act. This is all disappointing to me, as a fan, and I can only speculate as to the reason for it, but I remember reading an interview with John Cleese where he said that since he began going to therapy, he's been much happier, but also less funny. However, he said, he'd rather be happy than funny. In an article about Brooks by Bill Zehme, written in conjunction with the release of Defending Your Life, Billy Crystal relates this anecdote:

Albert Brooks had bought Rob [Reiner] some books [for his birthday]. One was Stunts and Games. And Albert said, let me read you some of these things. Then he started making them up and reading them as if they were in the book: this one's called National Football League. Get thirty of your friends together, have them donate $5 million each to buy black people who can run and hit. Or Kennedy Assassination. Pretend you see smoke coming only from the Texas Book Depository, ignoring the man with the rifle in the tree standing next to you. I've probably never seen anyone funnier in my whole life. In fact, it was so funny that he had to leave immediately afterward. I felt sad that Albert couldn't be a person; he had to leave.

I can only hope that the waning quality of Albert Brooks's comedy is somehow related to what John Cleese says happened to him. But whatever the case, Albert Brooks has made three (four?) of the absolute best film comedies in the history of the medium. I say that with full confidence. If you haven't seen any of them, start with Modern Romance. Or Real Life, or Lost in America. Whatever. Just start.

14 comments:

bob hester said...

I have to disagree with you. I thought Mother was absolutely brilliant. And look at this clip from Looking for Comedy. The best deconstruction of "improvisation" ever done by anyone. These two films in my opinion are still funnier than any movie I have seen in the last five years.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DHWU6nyJSgU

Adam Ross said...

"You're all acting like weasels!"

I saw this for the first time last month, and for most of it I kept thinking "wow, they REALLY don't make em like this any more!" I can't even think of a scene from any movie that compares with that early apartment scene, just for how long it sustains itself with no exposition.

If there's one quibble, I wished he had left out the epilogue. It wasn't funny, and what preceded it seemed like a sufficient ending.

bill r. said...

Bob, MOTHER definitely has its moments -- I just think it pales next to his best work. And that improv bit it LOOKING FOR COMEDY is ingenious, but he recycled it from his stand-up act.

Adam - "I love that line! 'You know nothing'!"

He used that epilogue in each of his first three films, and it never really worked. But ultimately, who cares? It's a really small price to pay for the greatness that precedes it.

bob hester said...

I saw him interviewed about that bit in Looking for Comedy. It was never a bit he did in his stand-up. The ventriloquist bit was but in the interview he said that that piece was created originally for the movie. I liked that whole movie. I think he was the first one to do any comedy regarding 9-11 and personally I think that took a lot of guts. I remember seeing this in a full theater in New York when it came out and the people in that audience were loving this movie, as I did.
Anyway, great piece you wrote. I think Brooks is the best of his generation.

bill r. said...

Bob - I was sure I'd seen that improv bit before, but maybe I just thought I had, after linking it in my mind with the ventriloquist bit. Either way, I stand by two points regarding it; it's brilliant, and nothing else in the film comes close to matching it.

I don't think LOOKING FOR COMEDY... is a bad film; I don't think Brooks has made one yet. I just think there's a clear line of difference in quality separating the two halves of his directing career.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Don't second-guess yourself. Defending Your Life is every bit a classic as Real Life, Modern Romance and Lost in America.

Kelly said...

I love his performance in 'Broadcast News,' which I also really like, though it's a whole different style than 'Modern Romance' or 'Lost in America.' I also disagree he hasn't made a bad movie. The Scout is bad. And he comes off as a really mean schmuck, which I don't think is intentional.

Stewart said...

The Scout is coming true with that pitcher for the Washington Nationals. That's what the movie was about, Strasburg even has the guy in the movies first name!
Never known Brooks to come off mean, whenever he's interviewed I just find him funny. I do think he made a bad movie. Taxi Driver. That wasn't a great movie.

bill r. said...

Kelly, I haven't seen THE SCOUT, but I was talking about his films as a director (I know he wrote THE SCOUT). And like Stewart, I don't know where the "mean" thing comes from -- I've never seen it. Also, THE SCOUT is coming true. Let's see, what else did Stewart say that I can just repeat? I'm going to let that TAXI DRIVER wisecrack alone.

Ivan -- creatively speaking, DEFENDING YOUR LIFE is brilliant, but last time I watched it, I just didn't laugh as much. But I still love it.

Will Errickson said...

One of my favorite parts of MODERN ROMANCE is the parody of STAR WARS. I saw REAL LIFE recently--had never heard of it before--and wondered why it was so forgotten. MOTHER is on HBO a lot and I like it more and more each time I watch it. Haven't seen LOST IN AMERICA in about 20 years, though. Recall NOT liking it, though.

bill r. said...

I watched MOTHER again recently, and it IS a pretty good movie -- the strongest of his last three, I'd say. And I also saw LOST IN AMERICA again not too long ago, and it was even better than I remembered it. In fact, before that, I would have placed it fourth, after DEFENDING YOUR LIFE, among my favorite Brooks films, but it really is a damn good, and damn funny, movie, much more consistently so than DEFENDING YOUR LIFE.

REAL LIFE, on the other hand, is and always will be brilliant.

Pat said...

Bill,

I love Brooks, but have never seen
"Modern Romance" - everything else, just not that one.

"Real Life" is amazing. I saw it on TCM last year, and actually found it kind of touchingly innocent, in a way, given how pervasive reality TV has become and how shameless its participants -whereas, in the relatively ancient "Real Life," Charles Grodin and his famliy are so obviously embarassed to have any part of their dirty laundry on film.

BLH said...

Anybody who can make me laugh for 90 seconds without repose simply by eating a cheese sandwich with appreciable enthusiasm is something of master in my book.

bill r. said...

Pat, you need to check out MODERN ROMANCE. It's fantastic.

REAL LIFE is indeed amazing. Years ago, my brother rented that when he worked at Blockbuster, and I ended up watching it by myself when nobody was around. I just about rolled off the couch, I was laughing so hard. And I do remember thinking, because the film was inspired by that PBS documentary series, the name of which escapes me, "Who would ever agree to something like this?" Well, now we know that the answer is "Practically everybody."

BLH - I've rarely wanted a grilled cheese sandwich more than while watching that scene.

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