DEFENDING YOUR LIFE (1991) – Surprisingly mild Albert Brooks comedy

Defending

In Albert Brooks’ comedies, his usual persona is that of a schnook who is so obsessed with being hip that he doesn’t realize how obnoxious he is (such as the Brooks yuppie who wanted to “touch Indians” in Lost in America [1985]). But his other movies made fun of these obsessions; Defending Your Life takes them seriously and tries to explore them. Consequently, though it’s officially a comedy, it’s more thoughtful than hysterical.

Brooks plays David Miller, a meek advertising executive who dies in a traffic accident. David finds that, before he can move on to the next level of afterlife, his otherworldly lawyer must be able to prove that David lived his life on Earth to the fullest. If he loses his case, David will be sent back to Earth to try again.

One night, David meets Julia (Meryl Streep), whose case is also being tried, and he falls in love with her. But as always, David is afraid of expressing his true feelings. Will he overcome his self-doubt? Based on his previous life, the evidence isn’t good.

The movie is pretty enjoyable throughout, but the all-out funniest parts are in the first half, as David tries to cope with both the nonchalant blandness of the afterlife and a trial that recounts his most humiliating earthly moments. The romance between Julia and David is not unwelcome either. Meryl Streep is quite charming, and her love scenes with Brooks are surprisingly believable and touching.

But the movie builds up a lot of momentum and goodwill for a huge resolution that never arrives. The whole point of the movie seems to be, “Don’t be afraid of life” —  not Brooks’s most profound statement ever. He seems content to make this film his Heaven Can Wait, complete with a tacked-on happy ending and celestial photography (provided by Allen Daviau, who also did Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra Terrestrial).

As in Lost in America, Brooks’ other actors constitute a rich supporting cast. Lee Grant is terrific as David’s prosecutor, and Rip Torn displays just the right degree of pomposity as David’s condescending lawyer. There are also a lot of neat cameos, such as that of the emcee of The Past Lives Pavilion; I won’t give away the surprise, but when you think about it later, she turns out to be perfectly appropriate.

Defending Your Life is not a bad movie, but coming from Brooks, it’s amazingly benign. If you liked Brooks’s hapless newscaster in James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News (1987), you’ll probably love this one. But it’s surprising that one of America’s most incisive satirists is content to settle for middle-of-the-road sweetness.

Albert Brooks’ LOOKING FOR COMEDY IN THE MUSLIM WORLD (2005) – A little smart bomb of a comedy

 

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Albert Brooks does comedy that’s so on-target, it doesn’t feel like comedy. In an age where comedians practically beat you over the head with their gags, Brooks’ style is like those old MAD Magazine cartoons that were in the margins of the pages. The funny stuff is in the peripheries.

Brooks’ Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World never made it to any theaters in Jacksonville, FL. (where I live). I’m tempted to say that’s a shame, but it probably wouldn’t have helped Brooks’ cause for it to be released here. (The movie grossed less than $1 million.) But now the movie is available for home viewing, where Brooks fans can appreciate its quiet pleasures.

Brooks plays a fictionalized version of himself, summoned to Washington on a mission. A commission headed by actor-turned-senator Fred Dalton Thompson (also playing himself) wants to try a more thoughtful resolution to the Mid-East conflict. They figure that if Brooks can spend a month in India and Pakistan and learn what makes Muslims laugh, America can make inroads there. Washington would have been far better off sending Adam Sandler.

Brooks thinks the answer is for him to do his old stand-up routine — which, if you know anything about Brooks, made fun of stale comedy cliches. Trouble is, if you don’t know the cliches to start with, it’s pretty hard to enjoy a spoof of them. Thus, we get several shots of Indians waiting to be entertained and instead sitting on their hands.

The movie is not laugh-a-minute, but it does have some hilarious moments and images, most of them centered around how Brooks is too self-absorbed to do Washington much good. He pontificates to a co-worker about comedy while bypassing India’s prominent Taj Mahal. He’s so desperate for laughs that he crosses a border illegally to do stand-up for some hooded Pakistanis sitting around a campfire.

To tell any more of the plot would spoil some of the movie’s best gags. There’s also a lot of “inside” stuff about Brooks’ own movies (he did the father fish’s voice in Finding Nemo) that will sail right past non-Brooks fans. But I don’t think Brooks cares. He arranges his gags like shiny gems on a counter and lets you pick out the good ones.

I loved this movie, but I admit that I smiled at it more often than I outright laughed. But considering the present state of American film comedy, I’m willing to settle for smiles these days.

Albert Brooks in MOTHER (1997) – A mother’s job is never done

Mother

In the comedies he has written and directed, Albert Brooks has tended to play anti-heroes who are so obsessed with being politically correct and “doing the right thing” that it never occurs to them how obnoxious they are. (In Brooks’ Real Life [1979], he played a documentary filmmaker who nearly drove his subjects to nervous breakdowns.) But in Mother, Brooks has made a noble effort to meet his audience more than halfway, and he’s definitely worth the trouble.

Brooks plays John Henderson, a science-fiction writer who begins the movie in the middle of arranging his second divorce. (Trying to look at the bright side, John says of his ex, “She brought great furniture to the marriage.”) Doing some navel-gazing, John concludes that his problems with women stem from unresolved issues with his mother (Debbie Reynolds, in a welcome return to the movies). So he informs his mother that he wants to move back in with her as an “experiment.” The experimental situation includes returning his old room to its 1970’s splendor, complete with tacky posters and a stereo blasting at all hours of the night.

John’s mother has been widowed and on her own for many years, and she doesn’t take kindly to the thought of re-raising her son. But she gives as good as she gets, feeding John old food from her freezer (the freezer burn, she reasons, is a “protective coating”), and informing total strangers of John’s failures with women. Adding to the mix is John’s brother (Rob Morrow of TV’s “Northern Exposure”), who thinks Mom likes him better but is in for a few surprises.

Jackie Gleason used to say that he did a “nudge act” — you could watch blustery Ralph Kramden, nudge your partner, and say, “That’s my Uncle Charlie.” I haven’t known anyone who’s seen Mother who didn’t nudge me or anyone nearby and recognize themselves in the movie’s relationships. The scene where John returns home is nothing but a prolonged take of John and his mother eating and squabbling in the kitchen, and it’s probably the funniest piece of film that was shown in any theater in 1997.

I hope I haven’t made Mother sound like a dark, brooding comedy or a sappy sitcom about a grown-up kid and his mom. It’s the most intelligent sort of comedy — the kind that goes for truth instead of snappy one-liners. All of the performances are believable and some kind of wonderful, and Brooks’ screenplay (co-written with his long-time partner, Monica Johnson) proves that Brooks continues to be an underappreciated national treasure.