Just prior to beginning work on his first feature film, 1979’s Real Life, comedian Albert Brooks had been making short subjects for the show that would eventually become known as Saturday Night Live (or, as the bewildered Phoenix city councilman puts it when introducing Brooks in the film, “Good Night Saturday”). The shorts were often the best things about those early SNLs, and represented Brooks at a sort of salamander phase as a filmmaker, learning the tools of his trade in anticipation of his first chance at a full-length production. Real Life was that first chance, and as the purest, and in many ways most successful, distillation of the essence of his comic sensibility, it did not disappoint.
The idea behind Real Life – inspired by the then-groundbreaking PBS documentary An American Family – was simple: Brooks, playing himself, is placed at the helm of a big-budget documentary – financed by Hollywood and given scientific credibility by the cooperation of the fictional Institute for Human Behavior – cataloguing the day-to-day life of a resolutely ordinary American family. After a series of elaborate psychological tests, the Yeagars of Phoenix, Arizona are picked as the test subjects, and an array of high-tech film equipment is brought in to document their lives 24/7. But no amount of pricey gimmicks or good intentions are enough to save the project from its head, as Brooks plays his standard self-image as a shallow, fatheaded, self-centered minor celebrity to the absolute hilt. He moves in next door to the Yeagers, and the minute his own phony showbiz sensibilities begin to register that the family is lacking in big-screen punch, he responds by attempting to start an affair with the wife, showering the whole clan with elaborate gifts, and, ultimately, destroying the village in order to save it, burning the Yeagers’ house down in order to give ‘his’ movie an appropriately dramatic ending.
While Real Life features some solid supporting performances (most notably, a typically smooth, understated turn by Charles Grodin as easily deflated veterinarian Warren Yeager and the underrated J.A. Preston as the only remotely sane person involved in the project), Brooks, who’s in nearly every scene, is the center of the film, and much of its humor relies on his vicious self-portrayal as a clueless, egomaniacal jackass who can’t see more than a centimeter past his own nose. Brooks (and his talented co-writers Monica Johnson and the multi-talented Harry Shearer, who also appears in the film as a hapless cameraman sporting the absurd Ettnauer 226XL contraption) completely savages himself, and there are innumerable hilarious scenes that hinge on his uncanny ability to make everything about him: his ham-handed pass at Mrs. Yeager comes when he fears the film is slowing down after her grandmother’s death, and his only response to Grodin’s concern that he’s having a nervous breakdown is to munch on snack crackers and tell him not to “clam up”. From his constant reminders to everyone else in the film about how much he’s spent on buffets, decorating, and big-screen TVs to his stunning ability to misinterpret metaphors, Brooks the director and Brooks the actor turn Brooks the character into one of the most unlikable yet compelling comic figures this side of Rupert Pupkin.
Indeed, while much is made of Real Life’s prescient foreshadowing of the reality TV craze – as it should be, given that it was made a good 20 years before every network discovered the inherent entertainment potential in sticking a bunch of nobodies in front of a camera and letting them have at each other – it’s even more astonishing in how keenly it predicted the coming, in the late 1990s and 2000s, of the comedy of discomfort, humiliation and embarrassment. Long before there was the showbiz phony Larry Sanders, there was the showbiz phony Albert Brooks, telling his Phoenician audience to “be yourselves” just prior to serenading them with an entirely artificial and self-flattering big band musical number. Long before there was the inadvertently self-destructive Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm, there was the inadvertently self-destructive Albert Brooks, sweet-talking Grodin’s character after he’s accidentally killed a prize show horse (with Brooks’ cameras capturing the whole thing). And long before there was the awkward, image-unconscious David Brent of The Office (or Michael Scott in its US equivalent), there was the awkward, image-unconscious Albert Brooks, interrupting a psychiatrist’s discussion of how his test family is undergoing a serious psychological breakdown to ask if she thinks he looks fat on camera. (Brooks even anticipates David Brent’s brief sidelong ‘did you notice how great I am?’ glances at the camera.)
For all its prescience, though, Real Life didn’t make much of an impact when it was released. It did mediocre box office business in a limited release, and while it showed up in semi-regular TV rotation due to Brooks’ later fame, it remained a comic obscurity seen by too few people and understood by even fewer. While it’s extremely relevant today in light of the reality TV explosion, for many years, it seemed like a gimmicky flight of fancy. And ironically, given the running gag about the documentary’s Hollywood producer who constantly suggests replacing Dr. Yeager with James Caan or Neil Diamond, the film’s lack of starpower undoubtedly hurt its survival chances; Charles Grodin was the biggest thing the movie had to a name actor (and probably still is). Its 2001 DVD release was the very definition of perfunctory, a bare-bones affair that offered almost nothing in the way of extras for such a well-crafted, hilarious movie that seems so meaningful in today’s media climate.
Still, Real Life isn’t, in the end, a movie that you seek out because you want to be reminded of Albert Brooks’ prescience, or because you want to hear him vaporing about how ahead of his time he was; it’s a movie you seek out because it’s so damn funny. The great scenes, hilarious lines and amazing moments in Real Life are so plentiful that naming them all would be tantamount to just writing a scene-by-scene depiction of the film. Some of the highlights: Brooks being confronted by Preston over his extreme awkwardness around blacks (Brooks: “Look, I know better than anyone you people are going to take over the world. You’re faster, you use heat better – Africa’s seething, BOOM! There it goes!”); his furious showdown with an equally clueless local news team looking for a puff piece on the documentary; his monthly planning meetings with the studio and the Institute, culminating in his engaging, at the end of the film, in a drop-dead funny screaming match with the producer – or, rather, with the producer’s voice coming through an intercom, since he couldn’t be bothered to show up; a paralyzingly uncomfortable and hilarious scene where he fails to pick up on an obvious analogy and flatters himself in the limpest way imaginable; the terrible, wonderful scene were Grodin kills the horse, and his hapless response to the news of his own mistake; and any number of scenes where Brooks shows himself to be a self-centered dick (“I always thought if I’d studied harder, and been graded more fairly, I would have become a doctor, or a scientist of some sort”). Scene for scene and moment for moment, it’s probably the funniest movie Brooks has ever made, and one of my favorite comedies of the ‘70s period.
Albert Brooks isn’t an extremely accomplished filmmaker; he’s not a tremendously technically gifted one, and he’s not one of especially diverse talents. The few times he’s incorporated drama into his films, the results have usually been slightly embarrassing. But as a comic filmmaker, he’s adventurous, restless, and willing to try anything. He doesn’t mind taking a piss on his own reputation, he’s willing to sacrifice almost anything for a good joke, and his movies, from the nasty yuppie satire Lost in America to the brave if misguided Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, are risky endeavors that are more often than not unappreciated in their time. If you want a look at the place where one of American comedy’s most satisfying careers got started, or if you just want to laugh your ass off, Real Life is well worth tracking down.