(Albert Brooks, USA, 1996)


I spend most of my time as a paid reviewer covering first release movies on big screens. But there are many filmmakers and films that I discover on more modest screens – on television and through home video.

It seems fitting that this is the case. For the kind of films that people tend to discover and treasure through these channels are usually unknown or even disreputable items – sometimes trash right on the margins of mainstream, commercial popular culture. You'd be tempted to call them cult films if they actually had a cult following of more than a handful of people. In fact, such accursed, discarded films tend to create tiny, secret societies of fervent fans. They are societies so secret that the members are lucky if they ever come in contact with and recognise each other. But it happens: sometimes you have that rare and precious joy of meeting one other person who saw, remembers, and has maybe even taped for home use, that amazing film on television one morning at 4am, that film which you just can't find mentioned in the standard reference books by Maltin or Halliwell or by anybody else.

Many film fans have had the experience of discovering certain horror movies or thrillers or oddball fantasy films in this fashion. But unknown comedy gems are rarer to come by. Nonetheless, I did stumble upon one great screen comedian in my travels through the by-ways of film culture. He is a writer, director and actor, and his name is Albert Brooks. Brooks is a slow, patient worker: he's made only five of his own films since 1980. He's not terribly well known, certainly not in this country. Perhaps his most visible and memorable role was in a film directed by James L. Brooks, Broadcast News (1987). In that film, Brooks played the neurotic intellectual, full of cruel quips, massive emotional defences and blocks. He's positioned in a painful love triangle between Holly Hunter, who is rather like him in personality, and the superficial, hunky guy to whom Holly's attracted, played by William Hurt. Now that cruel, neurotic intellectual thing happens to be the classic Brooks persona, his shtick; in fact, it seems to be about the only kind of role he can play successfully on screen. In this, of course, Brooks can remind us of Woody Allen, or the Italian comedy star Maurizio Nichetti, all of them writer-director-actors who play variations on their one familiar character-type.

I came to my love of Albert Brooks through discovering his first two films, Real Life (1979) and Modern Romance (1981). Modern Romance was a one-dollar rental special at my local video shop, and Real Life was once a staple of late night television. Both films are priceless gems – hilarious, and very hard-edged. Modern Romance is about the tawdry love life of a film editor, played by Brooks – and there are many brilliant gags about the process and grammar of film editing sprinkled into the margins of the plot. Brooks in this story is paranoically suspicious of his rather sweet, timid girlfriend, and in the course of the movie he wears her down with every kind of insane inquisition, speculation and cruel relationship test imaginable. It's like a black comedy version of Claude Chabrol's terrific film about sexual jealousy, L'Enfer (1994). Brooks keeps having moments of clarity, moments where he sees his own male madness, and swears to go straight, to never put his partner through this king of wringer ever again; but then, in the very next sentence, he's right back into the relentless, exquisite verbal torture he performs so well.

Brooks' first film Real Life is even more amazing. It's an astonishingly prophetic film about the whole era of reality TV, TV vérité or tabloid TV (as it's variously called). This is an era where strident, tasteless sensationalism invaded the realms of television documentary and current affairs programs. Actually it was inspired by a distant forerunner of the whole movement, a famous television doco called An American Family (1973), in which a crew moved in with a family, Sylvania Waters style, and recorded their every breath, more or less. An American Family was a fairly high-tone affair, but Brooks offers a low parody of that situation, with him playing a showbiz celebrity angling for the Pulitzer Prize. This parody exposes all the venality and stupidity and abominable manipulation of truth and reality that would come to pass in the coming days of reality TV. It is, once again and as always in Brooks' career, a black and corrosive piece.

Mother stars Brooks and Debbie Reynolds. It has a simple plot premise. Brooks is John Henderson, a sci-fi novelist. Once again, he's a deeply thoughtful and troubled, very neurotic guy, a bit pompous and superior, very stiff and unattractive in his blocked-up body language. In some ways, he's like that neurotic-intellectual from Italy, Nanni Moretti (Caro diario, 1994), another special writer-director-actor whose films play in that odd zone between drama and comedy. At the start of this film, John comes round to facing the fact that his relationships with women are pretty damn bad. Like every Brooks hero, he's caught in a deadly pattern of repetitive, compulsive behaviour, making the same mistakes in life and love over and over again. And he figures, like many a troubled New Age man, that his problems must stem from his fraught tie to his mother, Beatrice (Reynolds), with all the messy unfinished business hanging around that history. So John moves in again with Beatrice, much to her surprise and bewilderment, and tries to get onto some new ground with her.

The first thing that has to be said about Mother is that the problem it serves up to us – this mother-son problem of family life – is very ordinary. There's no melodrama, no horror here in waiting, no shocking revelations or highly cathartic therapeutic breakthroughs, like (say) in Robert Redford's Ordinary People (1980). Mother really is a film about ordinary people. If Beatrice has screwed up her son at all, it's in the most everyday, niggling, almost imperceptible way. Some reviewers find John's whole quest or experiment in this story a bit ludicrous: Beatrice seems to be, after all, a pretty nice, sweet, caring sort of person – and as the film proceeds, we realise how capable, vital and intelligent she really is. But there has indeed been some damage done on the psyche of our big baby John – a damage in which he has doubtless been more than a little complicit.

Part of what makes Brooks such a fascinating filmmaker is that while he takes everyday-style, almost television sitcom stories, and uses a very straight, unadorned, plain style of filming, he nonetheless insists on the emotional damage, the pain, the muck, the difficulty of simply talking and relating to other people. This makes Brooks the soul brother to another extremely underrated writer-director of uncompromising, hard-edge comedy: Elaine May, particularly her classic The Heartbreak Kid (1972).

I ask myself this burning question: why are there so many people who know of and celebrate the comic visions of Woody Allen or Jerry Seinfeld, and seemingly so few who stand up for Albert Brooks or Elaine May? Part of the answer has to do with the fact that Brooks and May deliberately give us quite unlikeable main characters. This goes right against one of the prevailing wisdoms of the film industry and of those dastardly scriptwriting manuals: the idea that a hero must always be likable – a little flawed, maybe, for a moment or two, but fundamentally a good and likable person – someone with whom the audience can sympathise and even identify.

Let's look again at the Brooks persona, and how it plays itself out in Mother. He is a very strange, very distinctive performer. He gives us off very little warmth. He seems to be forever inside his own capsule – there's no chemistry between himself and any other actor, which turns every scene into less a dialogue than a volley of alternating monologues – and that's very true of this film. Brooks runs off a brittle, testy, completely verbal kind of comic energy: he's all head, all mouth, no body. Now you could perhaps describe Allen or Seinfeld or Billy Crystal in those terms as well, but with this one big difference: those more popular comedians have a way of flattering the viewer, making us feel like we are always on the right, winning side of a joke – and that the comic patsy, the stooge is always someone else. Allen and Seinfeld, no matter how brittle or cruel they get, let us identify with them, and the jokes they contrive are rarely ever at their own expense, at least in a really heavy or self-critical fashion. But Brooks' entire art is based on a kind of masochistic self-flagellation, and this puts audiences in a very weird, uncomfortable position.

Most of the comedy in Mother spins out of painful situations, interactions that make you wince and cringe at the same time as they make you laugh uproariously – well, they make me laugh uproariously anyhow, and I had better add that, since there's no accounting for comic taste. Brooks goes into the most excruciating, minute detail about certain everyday manners that point up the chasm of difference between John and Beatrice. This surely must be one of the ultimate food films, for instance. Jokes about shopping for food, storing it, serving it, eating it, getting rid of it, not to mention different tastes in food, fill the film from one end to another, to the point of making us almost nauseous.

More on the psychological plane of interaction and communication, Brooks is a true master at showing how people talk to each other without talking to each other (or listening) at all. There's a fantastic moment, for instance, where we see John really working out, finally expressing out aloud to Beatrice, what his "experiment" in moving back in with her, is all about. At the end of this monologue, we cut to her wrapping up some food with great concentration, and sensing the sudden silence, she looks up and says: "What was that, dear? I wasn't listening."

The casting of Debbie Reynolds in this part is a stroke of pure genius. While Brooks performs inside his own modern, neurotic capsule of self-absorption, Reynolds is one of those old-school, pre-Method, very light and unemotional actors: you can see her thinking out each line and forming each gesture just before she does it, and this adds to the maddening hilarity of her role. And the way Brooks shows the different ways this mother relates to her two sons – John and his more conventionally successful and well-adjusted brother Jeff (Rob Morrow) – goes right down to the bone of every average dysfunctional family.

Some people profess having problems with this film, but I won't hear a word against it. Yes, there's something clunky, plain, amateurish in the way Brooks puts his films together. Yes, there's something sudden about the moves in the film, the way everything works itself out in the last fifteen minutes. Yes, there's an annoying New Age "men blaming their mothers" syndrome visible in this scenario. But I don't care, because what's good, unique and true in this movie far outweighs its faults. And it's also, on top of everything else, an extremely touching film.

It certainly touched me, and that definitely has something to do with a purely personal connection I have with this story. You see, Brooks' film hinges on the mild revelation that Beatrice is a frustrated writer, who gave up the literary ambitions of her youth, and then converted them into a mixture of intense nurturing and intense resentment, particularly of the son who became a writer. This is an experience I have lived through, and Brooks captures it with unnerving accuracy.

In fact, watching Mother brought back to me a formative moment of my youth, when my own mother read my first article about cinema, and seemed to get quite agitated as a result. She announced to me, as she flung down the pages, that she didn't really like movies; she much preferred current affairs programs on television (that was in the days before reality TV). She went on to say, tantalisingly, that the worst movie she had ever seen in her life, the most unpleasant experience she ever had as a young lass at the cinema in the 1940s, was probably a film that I would like. She wouldn't tell me the movie's name at first, but finally she relented. With a theatrical flair worthy of Debbie Reynolds, she hissed at me that the worst, ugliest, most awful movie ever made, as far as she was concerned, was – of all things – Citizen Kane (1941).

So now you really know why this particular critic loves Albert Brooks' Mother.

MORE Brooks: The Muse

© Adrian Martin May 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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