New here. First post. Be kind.
I like Brooks a lot as a director. My rankings would probably go something like this.
1. Modern Romance - I think it's a bit of a minor masterpiece.
2. Lost In America - Funnier than Modern Romance.
3. Defending Your Life - Sweet, but not exactly hilarious.
4. Mother - Underrated.
5. Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World - muddled, but worthwhile.
I'm really trying to get my hands on Real Life.
Anyway, here are a couple reviews I did of Brooks' films a while back.
Defending Your Life (1991, dir. Albert Brooks)
Albert Brooks is one of the great comedians of our time. He might be one of the 10 funniest people in the world, but I haven’t done the official count yet, so it might still be close. He plays like a more aggressive and aggressively neurotic Woody Allen which helps give some of his satires (namely Modern Romance and Lost In America – Real Life is still on my Bucket List) an incredible amount of raw, unflinching bite. He also has one of the great comic voices of our time. Come on, the dude is Hank Scorpio.
Defending Your Life, an afterlife comedy about a man having his life put on display in a sort of judicial purgatory, is considered one of Brooks’ great achievements, maybe not up to the incredible level of his first three features, his standup, his short films for SNL or his amazing performance in Broadcast News, but certainly up there in the Brooks pantheon (here’s hoping there is a petition out there for a Criterion release for Brooks’ first four films).
The rub with Defending Your Life is that while it’s actually a pretty great movie, with wonderful performances by the effervescent Meryl Streep and the wry Rip Torn and a nice, albeit soft, satiric tone, it’s actually not that funny. It’s not that it’s not funny because the jokes fall flat; it’s just that the movie doesn’t really have a lot of jokes. Brooks, usually a surefire source of sardonic one-liners, is more of a blank slate here, perpetually in a daze as he navigates Judgment City. While the whole film exudes a sense of fun as the tone conveys a much lighter touch than even Brooks’ most laugh-out-loud comedies, I’m smiling, but I’m not really laughing (there is a good laugh thanks to a cameo at the museum where people can watch footage of themselves in their past lives). If you want a similar kind of story, but with actual laughs, well, there’s always Groundhog Day.
Still, Defending Your Life works because it creates a fascinating world. While an afterlife comedy, Defending Your Life doesn’t peddle in traditional ideas of heaven and hell. Instead, Judgment City appears more to be a white collar city where the recently deceased either get to move on to a higher plane (which consists of people using a greater percentage of their brain capacity) or head back down to Earth for another go-round. Like a good science fiction story, a lot of the fun is in understanding the rules and norms of this new world. An admittedly more creative writer – say Charlie Kaufman – would have had a field day with this, but Brooks squeezes a lot out of the premise.
Like all of Brooks’ films, however, there are imperfections – moments that are unnecessary enough that they would have been cut out of the movie had Brooks had more to work with in the central plot. There is a scene where Brooks goes to see a hack standup comic. After some good-natured heckling, Brooks catches the eye of Streep and the two hit it off. They both decide to leave the nightclub only for the comic to beg them to stay. They oblige the comic, but a few seconds later they decide to sneak out anyway. Why did they feel the need to stay for a few more seconds? Nothing was gained from this.
There are also a lot of scenes where Brooks freaks out about how good the food is on Judgment City (one of the city’s perks is that anything you eat becomes the greatest thing you ever tasted and weight gain doesn’t exist so you can eat as much as you want). Brooks always seems to be marveling at how amazing every meal is, but he leaves every plate unfinished. It’s maddening.
Another baffling thing is Buck Henry’s role as Rip Torn’s temporary replacement as Brooks “lawyer.” I love Henry as much as anyone, but his presence does nothing to further the plot. Why is he there? Where did Rip Torn go? Was he simply sick that day and Henry was already hanging around the set so Brooks just cast him? Is this just an allusion to Henry’s role in Heaven Can Wait? So many questions.
Those distractions aside, however, Defending You Life is a nice, out-of-the-ordinary, inclusion in the Albert Brooks canon, with a real, warm, adult relationship at its centre and an actual big emotional climax at the end. Everything here – from the vaguely sci-fi setting to the warmth and sincerity – are so totally out of the norm for Brooks that Defending Your Life stands out. Sure, I would have preferred a tighter, funnier film, but I was impressed and moved by how much of a humane film this is.
Mother (1996, dir. Albert Brooks)
While Brooks’ first four films are justifiably his most celebrated, after watching Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World a few years back I realized that dismissing anything after Defending Your Life would be a grave injustice. That notion might be most true with 1996’s Mother, Brooks’ exploration of the most volatile inter-gender relationship a grown man can have. While Defending Your Life sees Brooks betraying his comedic edge in favor of creating an engaging conceptual setting and emotional heart, Mother takes Brooks back to his prickly roots.
Brooks stars as a mid-level science fiction going through his second divorce. In order to get to the root of his issues with women, Brooks decides to go back to his first troubled relationship and move in with his mother as a sort of social experiment – only once he “solves” this relationship will the romantic ones begin to make sense. Debbie Reynolds is wonderful as Brooks’ mother, deeply rooted in food-related eccentricities (“Honey, lettuce doesn’t get old…I just took it out of the freezer” or her referring to freezer burn as “protective ice”) and a critical streak that ranges from passive aggressive at the best of times and quietly cruel at the worst of times (”Maybe when you stopped eating meat, your writing got thinner.”). Obviously, Brooks’ intention was for the viewers to give a, “Hey, that’s just like my mom” reaction and a lot of it really does ring at least partly true thanks especially to Reynolds performance. Here, Reynolds, a veteran of old Hollywood in her first starring film role in years, smiles through every loaded criticism and back-handed compliment, making it all the more maddening for Brooks to confront her. Reynolds and Brooks pair off terrifically and the scenes between the two of them crackle with spite, resentment and exasperation on both sides. The scene where Reynolds looks to serve the vegetarian Brooks a meal after his long drive out to her place is a masterpiece of real life recognition humor. Even though it’s in an exaggerated form (like the three pound brick of cheese she pulls out of the freezer), there’s something relatable and recognizable in those moments and Reynolds especially hits the beats just right (Brooks is funny, of course, but is broad reactions to the food are a bit overdone).
Like Defending Your Life, Mother has some aimless moments, although a superfluous blind date scene featuring Lisa Kudrow is pretty funny, and its resolution and dénouement seem especially rushed. On top of that, there are a couple clunker jokes, including a parody version of “Mrs. Robinson” that is allowed to run its full course despite not being remotely funny beyond its, “Hey, this isn’t the real ‘Mrs. Robinson’” factor. Also, a subplot revolving around Rob Morrow (never whinier in his hilariously oversized suits) as Brooks’ younger brother who has maintained such strong ties to his mom that you wonder if he keeps his umbilical cord in his desk drawer works so well that I wanted to see that dynamic explored even more.
Still, Mother as it is offers some insight into how we view other people through the filter of our own insecurities and failures. Both Brooks and Reynolds paint unsympathetic characters. Brooks’ mother may shoot spiteful invectives through a tight smile, but Brooks’ is petulant and self-centered on top of being critical. As Brooks history shows, however, sympathetic characters aren’t exactly his thing (Defending Your Life being the exception). In the end, Brooks comes to an epiphany that doesn’t necessarily yield satisfaction: “We have so much in common. One of us is blocked and insecure; the other is angry and stifled.” That’s what counts as insight in Brooks films – unity through mutual misery.