JAMES L. BROOKS lives in a world of ideas and faces, retorts and reactions. He's re-lived it well in television ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Taxi"). He transferred it to film, to the accompaniment of 11 Oscar nominations, with "Terms of Endearment." Now he's done it again.
Brooks clearly has an intelligence and a benevolence -- and many other French words just like that -- which work in any genre. Add three crisp performances from Holly Hunter, William Hurt and Albert Brooks, in a comic triangle, and you have easily the best movie out this Christmas.
Hunter, Hurt and Brooks work for a Washington TV station's news department. Jane Craig (Hunter) is a driven producer hampered by her legitimate genius. To the sarcastic comment "It must be nice to always believe you're the smartest person in the room," she replies with tearful honesty, "No, it's awful." Hurt plays a TV frontman who is a human triumph of style over substance -- Ted Baxter meets Bob Forehead. In real life, he's a handsome moron who can't help getting the girls; on the tube he's transformed into an authoritative puppet.
"Half the time I don't get half the news that I'm talking about," he confesses with klutzy earnestness to Hunter. Hurt gives his role the perfect blend of arrogance (no problem) and awkwardness.
Albert Brooks (who made the wonderfully caustic "Lost in America") is perfect as the earnest newswriter who gives great news but can't get the girl. When he and Hunter make Hurt look good in a newscast by feeding Hurt questions through his earphone, Brooks complains, "What's the next step, lip-synching?"
The film's packed with one-liners that do more than amuse. A benign, veteran reporter, after being sacked because of budget cutting, tells his boss sweetly: "Well, I certainly hope you'll die soon." A wacky reporter with a new-wave hairstyle (Joan Cusack), expressing appreciation for Jane, says, "Except for socially, you're my role model."
And, as a youthful Brooks is beaten up by high school bullies, he yells, "You'll never make more than 19K!" Later he'll express a desire for a world where "insecurity and desperation were attractive."
Apart from a wrap-up ending that looks like a wrap-up ending, director Brooks masterfully interconnects this human triangle with the breakneck world of broadcasting -- the professional frenzy behind the news. He shifts the mood from romantic to farcical, the comedy from broad to subtle. He creates an even balance among the three principals and still has space on the scales for Jack Nicholson to score a cameo hit as a devilish Dan Rather-type anchorman.
Brooks' observations are as keen as Woody Allen's but without the neurotic narcissism. Instead of using himself as a metaphor, he infuses his characters with those feelings and observations. And when you've met those characters, you've met James L. Brooks.
BROADCAST NEWS (R) -- At area theaters.