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Albert Brooks' natural skepticism hits the ground running in Real Life (1979). It's right there in the title, before we even see the first frame of his brilliantly nervy debut film, a mockumentary about a documentary, An American Family, the landmark 1973 PBS chronicle of the Bill Loud family of Santa Barbara, famously enabled to demolish itself by allowing TV cameras into their lives. Before Brooks begins plying his comic persona as a grating neurotic narcissist who never seems rooted in the concept of limits, he spotlights the classic pitfall in the social sciences' methodology -- do alterations introduced by the presence of observers taint the so-called reality it wants to believe it's observing scientifically?
In other words, how real can so-called Real Life be once the media glom onto it? Before Brooks's focus widens to indict the media's reshaping of American life, and our cheerfully complicit attitude toward it, the film's theme is proclaimed by Brooks's manic documentary-maker as he zooms in to catch a moment when the family he's observing seems about to crumble. "I can use that," he cries. It's the battle-cry of the artist as vampire. Or, in this case, the mediocrity using a Hollywood studio budget to slap a veneer of intellectual respectability over the intrusive camera he's counting on to make him a success. Before it becomes inescapably apparent that the entire project and everybody connected with it is up to their eyeballs in false pretenses, the superficiality of it all is sent up when Brooks arrives in Phoenix in a cowboy shirt and uses words like "skedaddle" after a local glad-hander marvels at Brooks having come "all the way from Hollywood, California" to film them. Them! Just as they are! Don't, for God's sake, act, Brooks implores, just be yourselves. "Whatever it is, is fine," he goes on. "We want the greatest show of all life!"
After a scientific selection process as questionable as it is elaborate, the filmmaker settles on the Yeager family of Phoenix as the more typical of two finalist families partly because, he admits, the other family, from Wisconsin, would have meant he'd be in a cold place for part of the planned 12-month shoot. It was inspired on Brooks's part to cast Charles Grodin as Warren Yeager, the Arizona paterfamilias. Like Brooks, Grodin is a master of the comedy of uneasiness. Underplaying as unerringly as Brooks's character overplays, Grodin manages to load Yeager's every utterance and facial expression with unexpressed but very palpable dread. His self-confidence isn't exactly ramped up by Brooks's producer (Jennings Lang), whom we never see, but only hear via speakerphone. Suggesting a disembodied god who's even more jaw-droppingly obtuse than Brooks's cinematic alter ego, he immediately starts griping about doing a film with unknowns. "Where's Paul Newman?" he rasps. "Would Neil Diamond be so bad?" He ends his rant with: "I wanna leave you with two words James Caan." Over and out.
It's at this point that we get the idea that Brooks's manic enthusiasm is more designed to convince himself of the project's viability than convince us, or the participants. After dismissing a union crew the studio is contractually required to hire, if not actually use, saying "See ya at the premiere," Brooks is left with a cameraman whose inherently invasive presence is magnified by an inspired prop a camcorder mounted in what looks like a white plastic diving helmet, making the cameraman seem a close relative of the clumsy but lethal Imperial Storm Troopers from Star Wars (1977). The progressive unraveling of the family dynamic sends Grodin's vet into a paralyzing depression. This the filmmaker can't have. Immobility and thousand-yard stares just don't grab audiences. He's OK with trailing Frances McCain's stressed Jeannette Yeager to her gynecologist for an exam, only to have the visit fall apart when Brooks recognizes the doc as a baby broker "60 Minutes" had exposed. When McCain, cramped and in crisis, thinks she's falling in love with Brooks, who has moved next door, the better to feed his control-freak impulses, he rejects this bit of transference by assuring her he's shallow and unworthy of her intensity of feeling.
She's as volatile as her husband is numb. The vet, reeling from a malpractice suit caught on camera during a botched operation on a horse, implodes. And the more catatonic he gets, the more hilarious Grodin's monosyllabic minimalism seems. Meanwhile, the increasingly frantic filmmaker knocks himself out to ignite some action and verbal exchange. He rents a clown suit to animate the now morose couple, frantically tries to keep it all going as the scientists begin to bail, one by one, and the studio begins having second thoughts. Thus, the man who boasted he'd teach the French a thing or two about montage, and who has backed his footage with wave after wave of soaring, placating '50s-flavored musical tropes, sees the earth cracking open beneath his feet, and his career in flames.
Mort Lindsey, who supplied the relentlessly upbeat music, a symphony of mindless optimism and denial at odds with all that's going on around it, appears in the film. So does filmmaker James L. Brooks who was to give Brooks his best screen role in Broadcast News (1987), -- in a cameo as a driving instructor. Ditto for Brooks' brother, Bob Einstein, seen as the father of a family playing out a role reversal scenario at the testing center. (Psychological testing and its hierarchy and luminaries don't fare much better than Hollywood's here.) By the end, as the filmmaker's dream seems to be crashing down around him as surely as the Yeagers' disintegrating equilibrium, you wonder how such a thorough piece of war correspondence by this guy in a Harpo wig dyed black can result from a broken-field zigzag run through that psychic and emotional minefield known as the American Dream. More than a satire of An American Family, Real Life seems a black comic requiem for a few of America's highly recompensed false gods -- then and now.
Producer: Penelope Spheeris
Director: Albert Brooks
Screenplay: Albert Brooks, Monica Mcgowan Johnson, Harry Shearer
Cinematography: Eric Saarinen
Art Direction: Linda Marder, Linda Spheeris
Music: Mort Lindsey
Film Editing: David Finfer
Cast: Dick Haynes (Councilman Harris), Albert Brooks (Albert Brooks), Matthew Tobin (Dr. Howard Hill), J.A. Preston (Dr. Ted Cleary), Joseph Schaffler (Paul Lowell), Phyllis Quinn (Donna Stanley), James Ritz (Jack from Cincinnati), Clifford Einstein (Role Reversal Family Member), Harry Einstein (Role Reversal Family Member), Mandy Einstein (Role Reversal Family Member), Karen Einstein (Role Reversal Family Member), James L. Brooks (Driving Evaluator) Zeke Manners (driver), Charles Grodin (Warren Yeager).
by Jay Carr