A comedian to take seriously: Albert Brooks at Metrograph

Albert Brooks in “Defending Your Life.”

In recent years, comedian Albert Brooks has become known more for his acting career than anything else — from his well-received performances in Drive, the series Weeds, and other films, to an ongoing career in voiceover work in films like Finding Nemo and The Secret Life of Pets and the series The Simpsons. But this shouldn’t overshadow his accomplishments as writer/director/performer in a series of remarkable feature comedies, released from 1979-2005. Those who are unfamiliar with these films are in for a treat, when Metrograph screens all of them during an Albert Brooks career retrospective this October.

When Christopher Lasch published The Culture of Narcissism in 1979, the book was hailed as a mordant description of a social epidemic sweeping American culture (the book, now a classic, will be republished by W.W. Norton in October, with a new introduction by E.J. Dionne, Jr.). And if anyone was prepared to offer an unofficial film adaptation of the book, it was Brooks. Like Steve Martin’s routines, Brooks’s comedy deconstructed the cliches of stand-up performance, but there was more to Brooks than that — his characters, even when they were named “Albert Brooks,” were dour and always on the verge of anger; more, his characters exemplified the kinds of self-destructive individual and cultural narcissism, as well as a perverse urge to public performance, that Lasch anatomized. More than Martin’s, Brooks’s comedy was a comedy of discomfort. And it’s still relevant and uncomfortable almost 40 years later, as the republication of Lasch’s book attests.

A reluctant stand-up comedian, Brooks parlayed a series of surreal appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and several situation comedies into the role of house filmmaker when NBC launched Saturday Night in 1975. Brooks was ahead of his time as a comedy deconstructionist. (One of his most memorable short films, “Albert Brooks’ Famous School for Comedians,” originated as an article in Esquire magazine in the 1970s; the film will be presented in the Metrograph series, and you can find the Esquire article here.) It was only in 1979 when Brooks went behind the camera to direct Real Life and his concern with the culture became evident. With a script by Brooks, Harry Shearer, and Brooks’s long-time collaborator Monica Johnson, who co-authored most of the films that Brooks has directed (she died in 2010), the film was more than a hilarious parody of the groundbreaking PBS series An American Family; by inserting the documentarian himself into the story, Brooks explored the idea that people’s behavior changes when they know they’re being watched, either consciously or unconsciously, especially by the egocentric entertainers who are watching them. Brooks’ intrusion into the lives of the Yeagers nearly destroys the family and certainly destroys the family’s home at the end of the film. And prescient? A quick glance at tonight’s cable TV listings reveals that Brooks was there decades before everybody else.

Brooks followed Real Life with the even more acidic Modern Romance (1981), a look at narcissists more in love with themselves than with each other; though Modern Romance was a box-office disaster (despite Stanley Kubrick’s admiration for the film), he struck gold with Lost in America (1985), which added pungent observations about America’s professional class and generational malaise to a portrait of the self-loathing David Howard as he and his wife, inspired by Easy Rider, cross the continental United States in an attempt to “find themselves” and, as David puts it, touch Indians. His follow-up film, Defending Your Life (1991), proposed a Southern California resort hotel as a purgatory of sorts as Brooks’ Daniel Miller was forced to confront his various demons during his time on earth (it turns out that Heaven has a “blooper reel” ready for each of us; I’m sure mine is just as embarrassing as Daniel’s). Mother (1996) chronicled the uneasy relationship between a science-fiction novelist in middle age and his widowed mother (Debbie Reynolds, in a performance that won raves), but The Muse (1999), an abstract essay about artistic creativity, suffered somewhat from its insider-baseball satire of Hollywood and the entertainment industry. In his most recent film, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (2005), Brooks played “Albert Brooks” once again in a farce about a comedian’s misadventures in a multicultural society.

Like most successful comedians-turned-directors, there’s more to Brooks’s style than meets the eye; he doesn’t just turn the camera on himself then “act funny” in front of it. He prefers long takes, often with a stationary camera, framing his shots from a middle distance, more of a scientist intent on examining a biological specimen than anything else. And that is, really, what Brooks is, as a comedian and a filmmaker: a dispassionate observer of his deeply flawed self-involved subjects and the society and relationships they’ve built around themselves. Brooks has also distinguished himself in other media: his albums from the 1970s, Comedy Minus One and A Star is Bought, experimented with the received forms of spoken-word comedy, and the Boston Globe called his 2011 novel 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America “an inspired work of social science fiction, thoughtful and ambitiously conceived, both serious and seriously funny.”

The Metrograph series, which is scheduled to begin on October 5 and run through October 12, provides the opportunity to revisit each of these films and will also screen The Scout (1994), which Michael Ritchie directed from a script co-authored by Brooks and featuring one of his more nuanced performances for another director. (Ritchie also directed four great satires about competitiveness and the American Dream in the 1960s and 1970s: Downhill Racer, The Candidate, Smile, and The Bad News Bears.) More information about the Metrograph series can be found here. And below, perhaps one of the most quintessential Albert Brooks scenes, exemplifying much of what I said above, from Lost in America. Art Frankel plays the employment agent.