Albert Brooks' debut feature, Real Life, has enjoyed a long and prophetic life as a cult movie.
Conceived in its day as a comedy taking off from a single, famous media event, the American tele-vérité series An American Family, it has turned out to be an even more far-reaching satire of the entire, international phenomenon known as Reality TV.
Developing the acerbic tone of his self-contained, movie-like skits for Saturday Night Live, Brooks here again casts himself as the entirely unlovable centre of this hilariously misanthropic, modern fable.
Once Brooks moves himself and a crew (who move around with cameras built into astronaut-like headgear) into the home of a supposedly ordinary, typical family, nothing remains real or sane for very long.
The seduction of showbiz and the lure of the almighty dollar control every transaction in this film, giving the story its brutal logic.
Outside America, Brooks is frequently hailed as an idiosyncratic, even radical filmmaker. Kubrick was among his fans, and indeed if Modern Romance (1981) is Brooks' Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Real Life is his A Clockwork Orange (1971).
Brooks' ruthlessly pared-down style, paired with a form of comedy that lets no one off the hook, is disquieting. It will never win him the popular acclaim and indulgence enjoyed by Woody Allen. But if he had only made Real Life, Brooks' place in the annals of an alternative American cinema would still be secure.
© Adrian Martin April 2003