Albert Brooks may be the Woody Allen of the 1980s. His extraordinary first feature, "Real Life," demonstrates a potential genius for movie comedy and is animated by a peculiarly fertile and subtle imagination.
Brooks is undoubtedly the smartest American comedian attracted to the screen since Allen, and while his smartness tends to cause certain problems, it aslo means promise. At 31, Brooks is three years younger than Allen was when he completed his first feature, and "Real Life" operates at a far more sophisticated level than "Take the Money and Run."
A satire on the consequences of uncontrollable show business vanity "Real Life" was inspired in pary by the notorious, portentous TV documentary epic, "An American Family." In this case it isn't the subjects, an ostensibly "typical" American family, the Yeagers of Phoenix, who make unfortunated spectacles of themselves. The supervising filmmaker, an overbearing comedian-turned-documentarian called Albert Brooks, impersonated by Albert Brooks, is such an intrusive exhibitionist that the Yeagers never get a chance to exploit themselves.
From Day One of a projected year-long project, the fictitious Brooks is hogging the limelight, manipulating the shooting, transforming the chronicle of Yeager normality into an ego-maniacal vehicle for himself.Long before the project is scrubbed by its co-patrons, a movie studio and a psychological research institute, it's apparent that this maniac overcompensating personality will steer the film on a disaster course.
In the opening sequence Brooks is introduced at a Chamber of Commerce meeting in Phoenix. Compulsively, he tries to ingratiate himself by warming up the audience and working the room. He leaves the podium with a hand mike and does afternoon variety show shtik with puzzled members of the audience. He sings special, excruciating lyrics of greeting to the melody of "Somethin's Gotta Give," backed by Mort Lindsey's orchestra, flown in especially for the occasion.
Entrusted with the introductions of tow psychological advisers assigned to monitor the project, Brooks affects a tone more appropriate for a Dean Martin roast: "I'd like to introduce twof the finest psycological minds money can buy . . . I'm kidding, they're not for sale. We leased one and rented the other . . . What can I say, a well-known auther, he's written books, . . ."
Compulsive joker and self-promoter that he is, Brooks can't help coming on. While there's no particular malice in him, his way of asserting and expressing himself is maddeningly insulting. He's an overgrown, overtrained child clamoring for constant attention and gratification.
It's difficult to tell how much of a chance Brooks may be taking by confusing himself with the obnoxious Albert Brooks who brings chaos to the peaceful suburban streets of Phoenix. Comic stars have frequently cast themselves as disreputable types, usually cowards or cravens or lechers, but the mask was easily dropped, sometimes in asides addressed directly to the camera. Brooks obviously desires a more complicated ironic relationship to both the camera and his madcap comic persona.
What happens in "Real Life" is that while the fictitious Albert Brooks takes us cheerfully into his confidence, the Albert Brooks behind the camera sees through him with hilarious clarity. At the same time his perception of the character's craziness doesn't prevent him from enacting the crazy behavior with surprising conviction and impact.
Brooks probably cannot win a vast public if he insists on a persona as terminally selfish as the character dominating "Real Life." However, he appears to have a unique talent for embodying the vanities and insecurities of a show business mentality.
Brooks seems exceptionally astute about the agressions and anxieties of comedians. The son of a popular radio comic, Harry Einstein, better known as Parkyakarkus, Brooks was evidently a comic prodigy, almost legendary among the families of successful comedians and other performer before he was out of his teens. His talent for satirizing show biz formulas and subterfuges has already produced a comedy album called "A Star Is Bought," the wonderful "Famous Comedians School" article in Esquire in the early '70s, and the "Super Season" and open-heart surgery sketches made for "Saturday Night Live" during its first season.
The domineering Albert Brooks of "Real Life" may owe some of his unpleasant attributes to the fact that Brooks and his co-writers, Monica Johnson and Harry Shearer, began with the idea that the star might play a character inspired by Werner Erhard. In fact, one can imagine Brooks portraying all sorts of self-deceiving and/or self-prompting go-getters - a show biz personality running for political office, the social director on a truly uninhabited Love Boat, a TV programming "genius" planning The Rottenest Season Ever.
Perhaps it's a sign of artistic insecurity, but Brooks is really too hard on his own character in "Real Life." While it's cundamentally correct of him to identify Brooks as the intruder and the Yeagers as pasties, the Yeagers become too innocuous. They must have had some vanity to nominate themselves for cinematic-sociological immortality. One misses the comic turmoil that could arise from the spectacle of many big egos in conflict.
Ironically, Charles Groding plays Mr. Yeager, a timid, apologetic veterinarian, in the mild-mannered style of a Bob Newhart character, while Brooks' characterization suggests a zany extension of the devious young man Grodin played in "The Heartbreak Kid." Brooks will also stop at nothing to get what he wants or salvage what he takes to be his self-interest; no desperate measures are beneath him.
Frances Lee McCain and J.A. Preston contribute excellent supporting performances as Mrs. Yeager and the fed-up psychologist who decides to blow the whistle on Brooks' misbegotten work-in-progress. The producer Jennings Lang does a memorable cameo by long-distance telephone as a tough old movie executive who can't fathom this documentary albatross hung around the company's neck by a previous regime.
"Albert" he screams, "What the hell are you talking about You failed, you schmuck! You started with artsy-craftsy reality and ended up with the news. Who's gonna pay to see it? Do you think people will go to the box office and say 'Here's my $4, when does the news go on?'"
It appears that "Real Life" has gotten off to be a rocky commercial start. Paramount placed no display advertising in advance of today's openings at the KB Janus and Cerberus theaters and evidently a limited number of prints are available, guaranteeing a piecemeal, lackluster national "release."
At the moment Brooks' style may be too brainy and abrasive for his own good, but it's also a new, arresting style. American film comedy over the next two decades would profit enormously by the full emergence of Albert Brooks as one of its predominant creative influences.
Brooks' disinclination to play it safe is exciting to begin with. A comedian who portrays a pathologically vain manipulator and toys with an intricate film-within-a-film-within-a-film structure in his first theatrical feature is not soliciting an uncritical unsophisticated public.
Brooks' tentative position in "Real Life" may be compared to Chaplin's position in the Mack Sennett short "Kid Auto Races at Venice," as described by Walter Kerr in his book "The Silent Clowns." Kerr believes that Chaplin's basic relationship with the audience began in this improvised slapstick comedy of 1914 in which Chaplin pretended to be a face in the crowd intent on attracting the attention of the camera. Everything great and dubious in the comic persona he created may be implied in that deceptively simple situation.
Brook's is trying to discover a satisfactory comic identity of his own. In "Real Life" he hasn't quite succeeded but if creative intelligence can be trusted, he will sooner or later. Brooks is calling attention to himself in "Real Life," and it's worth paying attention. This could be the start of something great. CAPTION: Picture 1, Frances Lee McCain, left, Charles Grodin and Albert Brooks in the film, 'Real Life'; Picture 2, Albert Brooks in 'Real Life'