When Success is Failure

Albert Brooks has been called the “West Coast Woody Allen,” a nickname which acknowledges the similarities Brooks and Allen share: they both write and direct observational comedies in which they play the lead. However, the nickname misses what distinguishes Brooks from Allen (and most other American film makers) and misreads Brooks’ films to boot. In a review of the 2005 Albert Brooks film Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, J. Hoberman notes that “Woody Allen may bestride the world like a colossus, but – the brilliance of Real Life, Modern Romance, and Lost in America notwithstanding – not even the French have shown any interest in Albert Brooks.”1 The films Brooks co-wrote, directed, and starred in – Real Life (1979), Modern Romance (1981), Lost in America (1985), Defending Your Life (1991), Mother (1996), The Muse (1999), and Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World – both thematically and formally engage with the Janus-faced nature of success and failure. For Albert Brooks, to succeed is to fail, and to fail is to succeed. For this reason, in this article I want to position Brooks as an auteur whose films consistently confront the problem of believing not wisely and guardedly but too well and too deeply in the American Dream’s rhetoric of success.

In late 1960s and 1970s Albert Brooks worked as a stand-up comic. His early comedy albums, Comedy Minus One (1973) and A Star Is Bought (1975) were part of a larger shift toward meta-comedy. For as popular a guest as Brooks was on The Tonight Show, other comics such as Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman had more success with self-aware, meta-comedy (also called anti-comedy). Florian Keller uses Slavoj Zizek’s idea of over-orthodoxy or overconformism, “an excessively literal symbolic identification with an ideological discourse,” to argue that by taking the American Dream’s valorization of self-reinvention completely literally, Kaufman “actually staged an overconformist caricature of the (American) Dream.”2 Brooks, on the other hand, takes the American Dream, that of working hard and playing by the rules in the pursuit of happiness as a given. The characters Brooks plays are professionally and economically successful, which leads them to believe in the rules and expectations that the American Dream puts in place. But Brooks’ characters exhibit an overconformist position that shows the strangeness and emptiness of the American Dream for its winners: they perceive their upper-middle-class success as a kind of failure.

Writing for the Chicago Reader in 1985, Dave Kehr made the most extended case for Brooks as an auteur in a long review of Lost in America. Kehr highlights Brooks’s love of long takes and his distinctive editing patterns, in which “he resists both close-ups and cross-cutting, the two time-honored ways of binding up an identification between character and spectator.”3 Rather than provide the comfort of the Hollywood comedy editing style, Brooks uses a style that resembles more serious filmmakers. As Kehr sees it, “Brooks’s long takes reinforce this feeling of solidity: by resisting the temptation to cut…Brooks gives his actors and settings the time they need to exist on the screen, to occupy a place in the film with a weight that goes beyond the immediate demands of the screenplay”4 This seriousness of form creates a more serious undercurrent to Brooks’s films, and Kehr calls Brooks the great realist comedy filmmaker, placing him in league with Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet, Buster Keaton, Frank Tashlin, Jacques Tati, and Roberto Rossellini, and in opposition to Brooks to Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, and Brian DePalma.5 Kehr writes that, “Brooks’s comedy is above all a comedy of disappointment,” which is the logical product of his essential difference from most other comic filmmakers.6 As Kehr puts it, Brooks “strives for a perfect normalcy, a seamless unexceptionalness. … Brooks’s comic persona is brazenly average.”7 Kehr concludes that “the formal system he has found for his films is, almost literally, a system of disillusionment.”8 In other words, Brooks reveals the disappointment of believing in the promises of the American Dream and success; he shows the disappointment of overconformity.

I want to build on Kehr’s reading of Lost in America to account for Brooks’s entire directorial career. I will take a more or less chronological approach to Brooks’ movies, tracing both their consistent engagement with success-as-failure and the ways Brooks represents formally his skepticism about success. I begin with Real Life and Modern Romance, then turn to Lost in America, Defending Your Life, and Mother. I will then consider The Muse and Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World before concluding with a second look at Lost in America. Albert Brooks’ films might seem formally straightforward and uncomplicatedly invested in the status quo, and thus less in need of careful analysis, but their consistent interrogation of how overconformists experience the promises and failings of the American Dream and how film style can position a filmmaker at interesting angles to the rhetoric of success make Brooks a significant figure in American film and comedy who has not received the critical attention his work merits.

Real Life and Modern Romance

While Kehr bases his case for Brooks as a major filmmaker on Lost in America, the formal and thematic identity that he sees in Lost in America is present from Brooks’s first film, Real Life. In Real Life, Albert Brooks played Albert Brooks, an actor directing his first movie, a Loud Family-like documentary about a “normal” family in Phoenix, Arizona. For much of the film, Albert’s relentless Dale Carnegie-esque positive thinking frequently confuses success and failure. The film crew distracts Dr Warren Yaeger during a surgery, leading him to accidentally kill the horse he’s operating on. But Albert sees things differently, declaring in a voiceover that, “The operation was over at 11:45. Well ahead of schedule.” Yaeger does not share Albert’s sunny take, clearly recognizing the event as a catastrophic failure. The entire conversation during which Yaeger asks Albert to cut the surgery scene from the film plays out in a single take, in a long shot of Yaeger’s office. The more emotionally pained Warren becomes over losing the horse, the more Albert insists it makes him a sympathetic “character.” Warren even wonders aloud if Albert would sign an agreement not to include the failed surgery in the film, but Albert dismisses that idea immediately. Warren’s failure, after all, could make the movie better, and more likely to succeed at the box office. As Real Life presents itself as a documentary, the long take registers as a generically-appropriate way to shoot the scene. But Real Life is fiction, and a comedy at that. The Hollywood continuity-style cut for a scene like the one in Yaeger’s office would, at some point, cut to a reaction shot of a grinning Albert, inviting the audience in on the joke. By not cutting away from the conversation, Brooks marks Albert’s bright-side reaction as nearly pathological in its optimism.

Albert Brooks

Real Life: in Dr. Yaeger’s office

In the end, Albert diagnoses the problem his film faces in terms of what he has learned from Hollywood fictions rather than from the psychological insights his eternally frustrated consultant Dr Ted Cleary offers. In the film’s conclusion, Albert calls himself a failure, calls his movie an abortion, and admits he knows nothing about reality. The movie-based model for success – crowd-pleasing films like Star Wars, Jaws, and Gone With the Wind, all of which end with big satisfying explosions – directs Albert to blow it all up. This explosion takes generic form, as Albert’s documentary becomes a (bad) action movie; deadpan becomes the histrionic. For Harvey O’Brien, Albert’s breakdown is part of the film’s “final, viscously polemical turn” that makes the implicit argument “that the ability to look closely and honestly at the self is beyond the means of American filmmakers.”9 In other words, the only way that the “documentary” Real Life can satisfactorily end is in failure. Real Life succeeds as comedy because Albert fails in nearly every aspect of “making” “Real Life”. “Real Life’s” formal failure makes Real Life’s thematic/ideological success possible.

Albert Brooks

Real Life: documentary becomes action movie

In a 1984 overview of Saturday Night Live’s original cast members’ film work, the only cast member Jack Barth praises is the one who never appeared on stage, Albert Brooks: “His Modern Romance was so simple and loose that the magnitude of his achievement never sunk in. His character was so awed by his own shortcomings, yet so normal, that the jokes were too pathetic and true to laugh at.”10 Even as he praises the film, Barth describes Brooks’ film as a kind of failed comedy, “too pathetic and true to laugh at.”11 But Modern Romance is not an ordinary comedy. In a short review Gavin Smith uses an often-cited bit of movie trivia, that Modern Romance was one of Stanley Kubrick’s favourite movies, as a further endorsement of Brooks’ work as laudably complex.12 Smith praises the film as “quietly terrifying” and “almost frighteningly insightful about Bob’s compulsive behavior.”13 The frightening, pathetic and even terrifying nature of the film comes from its treatment of Robert Cole’s (Brooks) inability to maintain a relationship with Mary Harvard (Kathryn Harrold) (and it’s clear that the fault lies entirely with Robert). At the end of the film, after Robert has stalked Mary and behaved abominably, they get back together. A post-script reveals that, “Robert and Mary were married three weeks later in Las Vegas, Nevada.” Then, ten-seconds later, a second line appears, “They were divorced the following month.” Ten more seconds pass as the line scrolls up. A final postscript provides the grim punchline, “They are currently dating with plans to remarry.” By spacing out the make-up-break-up even in the film’s postscript, Brooks disrupts the generically appropriate ending: marriage ends up looking like an unhappy ending and divorce a happy ending. Success is failure and failure success. But I want to place the “romance” in Modern Romance to the side to concentrate on Robert’s work life.

Robert’s repeated and extensive failures in forming a romantic couple with Mary contrast strongly with his professional success. Smith notes that “one of the incidental joys of Modern Romance is its dead-accurate depiction of a film editor’s working life.”14 Modern Romance does not simply say Robert is a film editor and leave it at that; nor does it simply have Robert (and others) talk about being a film editor. To accentuate Robert’s skill as an editor, Robert explains to his co-editor Jay (Bruno Kirby) the edits he makes in the film-within-the-film, and the changing scene appears on screen four times forwards and once in reverse. After showing Robert’s skill as an editor, Brooks ends the scene by having the director (James L. Brooks) demand that Robert return the scene to its previous form. Perhaps appropriately, Brooks’s editing of the two halves of the scene – the good re-edit as opposed the director’s request to leave the scene as-is – drives home the emptiness of success and the personalization of failure. In the good re-edit section, Brooks uses an over-the-shoulder shot of Robert and Jay at the editing table, a Robert point-of-view shot of the editing table, and a shot of David and Jay looking directly into the camera (with a few insert closeups of film being cut and pasted together). After making his edits, Robert and Jay look into the camera and the “reverse shot” of their gaze is the new version of the scene. After watching the re-cut scene, Brooks cuts to the over-the-shoulder shot as Robert exclaims “ah ha!” and pumps his fist in excitement, which makes the success of the scene something the audience enjoys, not Robert. Were it Robert’s triumph, the logical cut would be to a closeup of Robert.

Albert Brooks

Modern Romance: successful edit

In the second half of the scene, Brooks does not use the over-the-shoulder shot. Instead, the scene uses the looking-directly-into-the-camera shot, the POV shot of the editing table, and a three-quarter shot of all three men. To show the three men watching the re-edited scene, Brooks first uses the look into the camera shot. Then, in a “reverse shot”, the re-cut scene plays. Immediately after Robert’s new cut, Brooks cuts back to the three men looking into the camera, as Robert makes a quick sideways glance at David to check for any recognition of the quality of his cut.

Albert Brooks

Modern Romance: sideways glance

After the re-edited scene plays, Brooks cuts to a longer, three-quarter shot of David, Robert, and Jay. David does not understand or like the scene in its new form. Robert addressed his fruitless attempt to explain to the editing table, as a direct address to Modern Romance’s audience. But the scene ends with David asserting the power of the director over the editor. He tells Robert, “You may be right. But let’s do it the other way.” Brooks uses two three-quarters shots, one from behind Robert to begin, followed by a three-quarters frontal shot, to register Robert’s pained. The scene’s content emphasizes Robert is a good editor; its form similarly prefers Robert. When explaining the cut to David, Robert points at the screen on the editing table – where the camera is placed. In this set up, Robert makes his explanation directly to the audience, not the director. And because the film-within-the-film scene plays through its multiple iterations four times in total, the audience has a chance to see how Robert’s edits improved the scene. The switch in shot at the reaction to the re-edited scene places success and failure in different places. Robert shares his success with the audience in the over-the-shoulder shot, but the failure of his edits comes in three-quarter shots that place Robert in the centre of the image. The failure is his from every angle. Robert’s success – convincing Modern Romance’s audience that the movie would be better the way Robert wants to cut it rather than how the director wants to cut it – is formally and narratively erased. A film editor’s working life, and Modern Romance’s narrative and formal imagination of it, seems ideally suited to an Albert Brooks character: your success belongs to someone else but any failure is yours alone.

Albert Brooks

Modern Romance: pained shock in three-quarters shot

Lost in America

Lost in America might be Brooks’ best-known film, largely owing to the degree to which it captures yuppie life in Reagan-era America, making it quite useful in overviews of the 1980s’ cultural history. But academic film studies tends to use Lost in America as a jumping off point rather than a destination. In “Fear of Flying: Yuppie Critique and the Buddy-Road Movie in the 1980s.” Ina Rae Hark argues that “Brooks astutely unmasks the romance of the road as a mere fantasy alternative to high flying,” but Brooks is peripheral to her overall argument about the road-buddy picture.15 Similarly, in Comedy and Cultural Critique in American Film, Ryan Bishop begins with Brooks, whose films often work on the theme of people who are self-absorbed (even narcissistic), individuals whose self-contained certainties about the world and how things work within it run into evidence that refute (sic) their viability” but subordinates him to a more critically embraced figure: “in this way, his protagonists are metonymic of the US itself, which means he keeps good company with Spalding Gray and his Swimming to Cambodia.16 Nearly every critic talks about the Winnebago, Easy Rider, and the Boomers turning into yuppies; I want to focus on David Howard’s (Brooks) understanding of the “rules” of promotion and professional success to show how Lost in America troubles both the rhetoric of the American Dream and the Dream itself.

Like Modern Romance, Lost in America begins with a neurotic man poorly explaining himself to an infinitely patient woman. David admits that his anxiety stems not from moving house, but from his impending promotion at work. He presents the promotion as the key to happiness, telling Linda (and himself) that “After tomorrow everything is gonna be better. I’m positive.” Brooks delays getting to the promotion, and the scenes that come between David practicing the promotion experience and the experience itself link David strongly to the idea of fulfillment through consumption that gained force in the 1980s. In the first delaying scene, David practices his promotion acceptance speech – he imagines that he’ll be offered an even larger salary – in the bathroom mirror as he brushes his teeth. In the second, David discusses a Mercedes purchase. The things David talks about in the first fifteen minutes of the film – a promotion, a big raise, a new house, and a new car – represent the consumer keys to happiness on which most versions of the American Dream are built. The frequency with which Lost in America is called a yuppie movie hinges on this conception of happiness, as one of consumption made possible through climbing the ladder. The promotion plus two new major purchases will, for David, prove that he has finally achieved the Dream.

However, when David finds out that rather than become senior vice president, he will be transferred to New York to work on the firm’s biggest and newest account, he reacts as if the rules have been broken, as if he has been demoted. The belief that working hard and playing by the rules will lead to advancement undergirds David’s case. First he insists that, “I should get the position I deserve instead of just being shifted to another account…you have to keep your promise to me.” David’s I-quit harangue makes the case for promotion in terms of the implied metrics of time at the job and personal skills and merit: “ by being extra clever and by being here longer I get shifted to just other account and he because of his low intelligence and short time with the company (Phil Shabano) gets this job I’ve been waiting my whole life for.” The promise, in this case, is not actually anything Paul said, but the promise the American Dream. But the promise was only ever implicit – is only ever implicit – which breaks David’s belief in the ladder-climbing version of the Dream. When the scales fall from his eyes, he recalibrates his description of adhering to the rules to achieve the American Dream: “I was on the road to nowhere. Do you know the road? It’s a nowhere road. It goes nowhere. You’re on it. You don’t know it? It’s a nowhere road. It just goes around in a circle. It’s the carrot on the stick and the watch when you’re 70.” David thus turns away from the go-nowhere work life in pursuit of the for a vision of the Dream put forward in Easy Rider and other 1960s countercultural narratives: a purposeful aimlessness divorced from concerns of promotions and raises in corporate America.

Defending Your Life and Mother

Success and failure permeate Brooks’ thinking even into the afterlife. Defending Your Life begins with Daniel Miller’s (Brooks) birthday party. On his way home from the party, the successful and even well-liked Daniel gets hit by a bus and dies. The rest of the film takes place in Judgment City, a weigh station in the bureaucracy of the afterlife. In Defending Your Life, a review of key moments from your life determines the future of your afterlife. The connection of self-worth and net worth that permeates American life seems to extend into the afterlife. With a defense and a prosecutor and a two-judge panel, the film “participates in a long trajectory of texts that depict the adjudication of one’s post-mortem destiny using courtroom and trial imagery.”17 In Judgment City’s placeless afterlife, everything from housing to food is free, but Defending Your Life frequently frames the adjudication of Daniel’s ability to deal with fear in terms of money. The prosecutor in Daniel’s case hones in on his previous financial decisions – not investing in Casio, not bargaining harder for a better salary – as proof of fear, which Daniel finds both painful and slightly beside the point. Resist though he may, Daniel experiences a Judgment City where the extent to which he doesn’t quite stack up appears in consumer terms. When he meets and falls in love with Julia (Meryl Streep), her exemplary life takes the form of consumption: She stays at the Majestic Hotel with a Jacuzzi in her room, she gets crème-filled chocolate swans; Daniel stays in a dingy hotel and only gets mints. Defending Your Life engages with the power of conforming to the prevailing value system most consistently in terms of money, but its vision of conformity goes beyond the financial. In his first interview with Diamond, Daniel shows a great deal of interest in how his case stacks up against other cases, historically, starting with how many days his review will take. Daniel’s interest in his relative normalcy remains throughout his stay in Judgment City. Diamond notices, “you’re very concerned about normal, aren’t you? Kinda cute.” Daniel’s concern over being normal even in the afterlife testifies to his deep-seated belief in the importance of the system he is part of – whether it’s Judgment City or the American Dream – as a way to judge his success or failure. When Daniel finally lives his life as he ought to have lived it, it’s in the afterlife. Defending Your Life turns what looked like a moderately successful life into a failure, but also creates an afterlife in which by dying Daniel learns how he ought to have lived, turning success into failure that in turn becomes success.

Like Defending Your Life, Mother also begins with a failure, although John Henderson’s (Brooks) divorce presents slightly lower stakes than eternity. After his second divorce, John decides that he needs to sort out his relationship with his mother so that he can improve his relationships in general. This return to origins plays out through the entire film, with John going back to live with his mother Beatrice (Debbie Reynolds) to discover where his troubles with women started. For John, the two things that bring him the most joy – that generate what he takes to be a psychological breakthrough – are being hated and sharing in failure. When John learns his mother wrote a lot of books that she never published, he thinks he can explain his failed relationship with his mother (and thus with women in general), who “raised children who she hated for ruining her life and killing her chances at doing the one thing she loved.” A piano quietly plinks, signaling that this is a Touching Moment, and Beatrice says, “Well my goodness. I never heard it put exactly like that, but yes. I’m afraid that’s true.” John starts to dance around the room at this breakthrough, telling his mother, “We did it. We figured it out, mother. Look what just happened! We know why you hate me. We know why she hates me!” John asks Beatrice about her too-brief writing career. John pop psychologises, “I just have to be a huge threat to you…I represent what you had to stop.” Beatrice again affirms John’s point, admitting, “Maybe you’re right. How do you like that?” with a surprised expression. “Listen to me. I’m sorry mother. I wish I could have done something to change all of this, you know that. But I had nothing to do with it. But for the very first time – for the first time – I don’t see you as my mother. I see you as a failure. And it’s wonderful!” Kathless Murphy reads this scene as “easy psychobabble solutions, happy endings that are there because the movie stops short of its blackest humor.”18 Murphy misses how Beatrice dismisses “easy psychobabble solutions” throughout the entire film. Early on, she summarizes the whole situation as, “you’re having problems and you’re blaming me, is that it?” When John has his breakthrough, her response undercuts its power: “I’m a failure and that’s wonderful? Alright honey. If that’s what you need” as she laughs softly, which John does not register. The next morning, when John informs her he’s moving out now that he’s solved his psychological problems, she admits, “My goodness, I didn’t get that moment that you did,” right before joking with John that she forgets if she’s the “blocked and insecure” one or the “stifled and angry” one. In other words, John’s success at figuring out his problems is much less successful than it seems.

Albert Brooks

Albert Brooks

Albert Brooks

Albert Brooks

Albert Brooks

Albert Brooks

Albert Brooks

Mother: John trapped in space

John’s failure comes through clearly through cinematic means. On first glance Brooks’ directorial style is anonymous, but the way in which Mother questions success and happiness appears in its mise en scene consistently. The film’s credit sequence testifies to Brooks’ ability as a director, representing John and the situation he faces in one long extended take. John walks into a house’s front room, which has only a leather chair and a side table. He drags the chair to every corner of the room, pausing to sit down at each stop, until the chair is back where it was when John entered. The credits say “an Albert Brooks film”, but the title is Mother, and the film belongs to Debbie Reynolds. The particular way in which John and Beatrice Henderson occupy and control space figures as much of the film’s vision of success and happiness as its narrative and dialog. Whereas John is trapped inside the frame during the credit sequence, Beatrice is never controlled by the frame. Though she struggles with getting into the shot when she uses a video-display phone, Beatrice controls space by moving into the frame that someone else – usually John – already occupies. For example, when she hears loud music playing, Beatrice follows the sound to its source, opening the door to John’s room to reveal John dancing with a look of great determination. Exposing John dancing with himself, presents the most spelled out case of Beatrice sneaking into the frame and taking control of space to become the center of attention. For instance, when John moves all his old things from the garage to his bedroom, he walks down the hallway carrying a lamp.

Albert Brooks

Mother: Beatrice sneaks into frame

Beatrice’s head pops out from behind a corner, and as John disappears into his room, the only person in the frame is Beatrice, shifting the focus of the image from John to her. Similarly, when John pays off the day laborer, Beatrice appears from the rear left of the image and walks into the centre of the frame. The shot begins focused on the money changing hands, but a rack focus shifts attention to Beatrice. Thus Mother insistently takes attention away from what John is doing to shift attention to what Beatrice does. This approach continues through to the film’s conclusion, when Beatrice appears as the arbiter of success. When Beatrice resumes her writing career, her first piece of work tells John’s story. In such an ending John’s success depends on Beatrice’s success as a writer. What’s more, that dependence makes his success incidental to hers, a deflating vision of success-as-failure that echoes John’s experiences with Beatrice throughout Mother.

Albert Brooks

Mother: Beatrice at centre of frame

The Muse and Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World

The last two films Brooks made, The Muse and Looking for Comedy in the Muslim world, both make the same change to the lives of the characters he plays: they give him a wife and kids. Where Brooks once struggled to find and find happiness with a romantic partner, in both The Muse and Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World he has what seems to be a stable and fairly happy family life. This switch to a more stable, domestic background grants Brooks’ characters a measure of success at home that his struggles at work put in the shade. At the beginning of The Muse the screenwriter Steven Philips (Brooks) wins a humanitarian award. His acceptance speech describes being a screenwriter as an unsatisfying, outsider experience, “a lot like being a eunuch at an orgy. The only difference is, the eunuchs get to watch and I’m not even invited to the set”. Later that night, Steven’s older daughter Julie tells Steven she is proud of him, and in thanking her Steven says, “I’m so happy you were there” to see his success. But when his young daughter Mary asks what a humanitarian is, Steven informs her, “It’s someone who’s never won the Oscar.” In Steven’s eyes, the award is not a token of successfully helping others, but rather a token of his own professional failure.

Albert Brooks

The Muse: eunuch at an orgy

The intersections of his happy family life, his drive for screenwriting success, and his wife Laura’s (Andie MacDowall) success as a small businessperson create a world in which, as Gore Vidal might have said, every time a friend of Steven’s succeeds, something inside him dies. Gavin Smith locates The Muse’s similarity to other Brooks films in its problem-solving logic:

In The Muse, as in Mother (96) and Lost in America, the great central comic conceit is his adoption of an improbable radical solution: When your marriage fails, move back in with your mother to figure out why your relationships with women don’t work; when you don’t get the promotion you feel you deserve, quit, drop out of society, and go on the road to find yourself; if your writing career goes south, hire a muse and do whatever she instructs, even if you can’t shake the feeling you’re being shortchanged.19

Albert Brooks

The Muse: every time a friend succeeds, something inside me dies

At the heart of the logic Smith describes in terms of The Muse in particular is a common thread to Brooks’ films in general, a suspicion that everything you do to succeed still won’t be enough, either in the doing or in the result. Even though Steven hired Sarah the Muse (Sharon Stone), a never-ending line of film makers occupy her time. Sarah also inspires Laura to commercialize her cooking skills. Steven doesn’t take Laura’s horning in on the Muse well, a fear Laura characterizes as, “If she gives to me she takes from you.” Steven’s fear of being shortchanged, at first, seems accurate. Laura enjoys a far better rate of return – her cookies get sold at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago. But Laura’s success only makes Steven’s inability to finish his screenplay all the more frustrating.

The Muse concludes with Steven briefly enjoying success, only to have it turn into failure. Rather than using end titles, as he does in Modern Romance and Lost in America (which I will deal with momentarily), Brooks ratchets up the pace to race through a series of highs and lows. First, Steven finally looks to be selling his screenplay, but somehow Rob Reiner has the very same screenplay at another studio, and Steven looks like a fraud. The next scene finds Steven working at Laura’s cookie shop, but a phone call from his agent rescues him: his screenplay is getting picked up. Upon arriving at the studio, he learns that the executive who bought his script is Sarah. Gavin Smith, probably the strongest Brooks partisan, writes, that “a cult of personality has deservedly formed around his compact oeuvre.”20 For Smith, the Brooks character is “a specific comic persona: smugly self-confident, oblivious to its own absurdity” “defined by the more complex experience of humbling misfortune and an ensuing struggle to overcome pervasive anxiety and regain existential terra firma.”21 The yo-yoing of Steven’s fortunes at the film’s conclusion ends at a low point for Steven, not at his success. Even when both Steven and Laura succeed professionally, Brooks makes Steven’s success a version of failure. The Muse may be a comedy, but its happy ending is attenuated: in the face of constant humbling misfortune, existential terra firma is the comforting inevitability of failure.

Albert Brooks

The Muse: working in his wife’s cookie shop

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World made less than one million dollars, making it Brooks’ least financially successful film. It made much less money than other 2006 comedies such as Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties, Clerks II, and Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector. The film’s failure at the box office seems baked in. The film begins with the director Penny Marshall wondering why she’s even talking to Albert about her remake of Harvey (1950) because he is not “the next Jimmy Stewart,” merely the star of the inexplicable remake of The In-Laws. Similarly, when the State Department comes calling, Albert immediately assumes that they wanted Mel Brooks. Since the previous scene shows that Albert has no films to make, when his wife encourages him to talk to State, it’s a demonstration of both her love and confidence as well as his less-than-desirable status in Hollywood. Albert’s inability to get cast makes him a good hire for the State Department, and recalls Jack Barth’s assessment of how Brooks pinpoints Hollywood’s feelings about him starting with Real Life: “They think he’s great – and they think he’ll never sell tickets.”22 In Washington DC, fellow actor, sometime Senator and State Department Commission chair Fred Thomson admits, “quite frankly, our first few choices were working,” but, “as far as I can tell, you’re a pretty respected comedian,” which makes Albert qualified enough to answer the question State wants answered: “What makes Muslims laugh?” Thompson seals the deal with the suggestion that “the Medal of Freedom would do wonders for your acting price.” Unable to find work in Hollywood, Albert hopes to transmute Hollywood failure into nation-serving success.

Albert’s investigations lead to his return to stand-up comedy, in an act that rehashes some of Brooks’ anti-comedy material from the 1970s. Unsurprisingly, in retaining “his essential gag of being the comedian who isn’t funny,” Brooks ensures that Albert’s act bombs when he performs at the Rajendra School in New Delhi, and while his hyper-competent assistant Maya argues that no one laughed “because they’re idiots,” her boyfriend wonders “if you do as badly on The Tonight Show as you did the other night, are you banned from the show business? Are you still allowed to be an entertainer?” Albert’s “set” in Pakistan, which has to be translated for his audience of six, does slightly better, although everyone being high might have helped. But no success can go unpunished in a Brooks film. Albert, by asking so many questions in India and sneaking into Pakistan to perform for half a dozen aspiring comics, is mistaken for a spy, and increases tensions to the extent that India and Pakistan briefly resume hostilities. Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World’s ending echoes Real Life’s conflagration, with Brooks toasted as “the Henry Kissinger of comedy” at a celebratory dinner in California while India and Pakistan go into a nuclear alert status that Albert unwittingly started. In a traditional happy-unhappy Brooks post-script, India and Pakistan stand down after “they identified Mr. Brooks as the problem.” In successfully doing his part for US soft power, Albert fails to reduce the threat of global violence – in fact he increases it.

Albert Brooks

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World: the comedian who isn’t funny

While Smith finds Brooks’s characters wrestling with humbling misfortune his calling card, Scott Raab tracks the way success often looks like failure throughout Brooks’ own career:

Lorne Michaels asked him to become the permanent host of Saturday Night Live in 1975; Albert said no. In 1976, he debuted as an actor in Taxi Driver, playing Robert De Niro’s dorksome rival for Cybill Shepherd’s dainty hand; Martin Scorsese was so impressed by Albert’s work that he expanded the role during shooting. It was the perfect Albert Brooks career move, an artistic success leading to implausible failure: He didn’t land another role until he directed himself in Real Life. Even after an Oscar-nominated job as the sweat-ruined TV news correspondent in 1987’s Broadcast News, he has had trouble getting cast in other people’s films.[23. Scott Raab, “Albert Brooks Knows the Whole, Hellish Truth,” Esquire, 1 Sep 1999, accessed 17 May 2016.]

Raab’s profile, like Smith’s description of the Brooks character, appeared in 1999, when Brooks was promoting The Muse. After The Muse, Brooks only wrote and directed one film: Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World. This failure to make films of his own can be explained, in part, by Brooks’ success as an actor. Brooks has continued his voice-over work – The Simpsons (1990-2016) and The Simpsons Movie (2007), Doctor Dolittle (1998), Finding Nemo (2003), Finding Dory (2016), and The Secret Life of Pets (2016) – and comic roles for hire, such as Out of Sight (1998), The In-Laws (2003), This Is 40 (2012), and a four-episode guest run on Weeds (2008). Brooks has also taken on more dramatic roles, building on his well-received work in Broadcast News (1987) in films like My First Mister (1999), Drive (2011), A Most Violent Year (2014), and Concussion (2015). Brooks’ most popular films, in terms of box office success, are not his own films, but those in which he is an actor for hire, not an auteur, an ironic but fitting summary of his career.

“I Eat Shit”: The Albert Brooks Happy Ending

The ending of Lost in America, which Mark in Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World thinks is “a little tacked on,” encapsulates how Brooks, even in the midst of a happy ending, treats success as a species of failure. After losing the entirety of their early-retirement nest egg at the roulette wheel in Las Vegas, David and Linda park the RV in small town Arizona, grimly set on getting their lives back in order. David finds work as a crossing guard and Linda as a fry cook. One night, David, Linda and her new manager, the teenager Skip, have a brief chat in the RV. Skip’s presence creates a bizarre “family” in which Skip holds the highest-prestige job in the RV. David admits that, like Linda, he’s at the end of his tether. To solve the problem, David and Linda agree that they must get to New York – and the job David quit – as quickly as possible. David and Linda high tail it to New York, and when David arrives at the office in New York, he sees the previously-hated Brad, and nearly chases him into the building. For Michael Boyd, the endings of the Reagan-era films Something Wild (1986), After Hours (1985), Lost In America “each ridicule middle class complacency even while they provide culturally square, politically conservative “messages” with happy endings that, despite a deeply felt cynicism, seem to present wholesale sell-out as the only sensible course of action.”23 It seems to me Boyd misreads the ending of Lost in America. Generically, Lost in America is a comedy, and it so it should end with a wedding and a feast. And it does. David renews his vows with the American Dream by re-marrying his job, and the wedding feast entails eating shit. The post-script tells us that “David Howard got his job back with a 31% salary cut – but with better medical.” For Kehr, such an ending shows that “Brooks’s characters…are allowed to begin again, with healthily diminished expectations.”24 Or, as David puts it, “I eat shit.” All of which is another way of saying that in Lost in America, as in all of Albert Brooks’ films, success is failure.

Brooks’ films all begin with some kind of failure, which is not strange – most movies will direct their protagonists through a series of adventures that lead, in the end, to success. But Brooks’ film also end with failure – or more specifically, a kind of success that looks and feels very much like failure. Every success – a finished movie, marriage, the Ford account, eternal life, personal growth, a screenplay finally getting picked up, and a completed report for the State Department (as well as a job in Portland, Oregon) – comes in a larger context that it looks much more like failure: a mental breakdown, divorce, a net wealth of zero, being dead, a breakthrough no one else registers, having to work with an unbalanced boss, and almost starting a war (to say nothing of never being anchor and getting stabbed in a parking lot). Dave Kehr points out, “Keaton needed Chaplin, just as Brooks needs Allen: the consensus comic draws off the audience’s need for identification and reassurance, leaving the marginal comic free to follow his own lights.”25 Woody’s had hits and award-winners. Annie Hall (1977) was a top twenty hit and nominated for best picture at the Oscars; Midnight in Paris (2010) grossed more on its own than all of Brooks’ (marginal) films combined. Calling Brooks a neglected figure akin to Jerry Lewis misses the mark too. Jerry Lewis was a major box office draw in the 1950s and 1960s, and as a “total filmmaker” has a significant profile in film studies, as Chris Fujiwara’s book and Murray Pomerance’s edited collection show.26 Brooks has his champions in popular film criticism, Kehr chief among them. J. Hoberman rates some of Brooks’ work as brilliant. Mike Higgins calls Brooks “unfairly neglected”; Robert DiMatteo claims that “no one can represent and redeem obnoxiousness” like Brooks.27 But Brooks barely registers in academic film criticism, which is a great loss. Brooks’ recurrent concerns – the rhetoric and ideology of success, failure, and the unhappy happy ending, and the long-take long shot style he places them in – position him as an auteur, and one who deserves greater critical attention.

 

This article has been peer reviewed.

 

 

FILMOGRAPHY

As Writer-Director-Actor

The Famous Comedians School (short, 1976)

Real Life (1979)

Modern Romance (1981)

Lost in America (1985)

Defending Your Life (1991)

Mother (1996)

The Muse (1999)

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (2005)

 

Other

Comedy Minus One (1973) – stand-up comedy album

A Star Is Bought (1975) – stand-up comedy album

Saturday Night Live (1975) short films, writer

The Scout (1994) – screenwriter, actor

Taxi Driver (1976) – actor

Private Benjamin (1980) – actor

Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) – actor

Unfaithfully Yours (1984) – actor

Broadcast News (1987) – actor

I’ll Do Anything (1994) – actor

Critical Care (1997) – actor

Out of Sight (1998) – actor

My First Mister (1999) – actor

The In-Laws (2003) – actor

Weeds (2008) – actor

Drive (2011) – actor

This Is 40 (2012) – actor

A Most Violent Year (2014) – actor

Concussion (2015) – actor

Terms of Endearment (1983) – voice

The Simpsons (1990-2015) – voice

Doctor Dolittle (1998) – voice

Finding Nemo (2003) – voice

The Simpsons Movie (2007) – voice

The Little Prince (2015) – voice

Finding Dory (2016) – voice

The Secret Life of Pets (2016) – voice 

 

Select Bibliography

Boyd, Michael. “Comedy and Perversity: Some American Films of the 1980s.”Bridgewater Review 9.1, April 1992, 2A-5A.

DiMatteo, Robert. “Real Afterlife.” Film Comment. 27.2, Mar 1991. 18+

Hark, Ina Rae. “Fear of Flying: Yuppie Critique and the Buddy-Road Movie in the 1980s.” The Road Movie Books. Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark ed. London: Routledge, 1997. 204-29.

Hill, Doug and Jeff Weingrad. Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live. New York: Beech Tree Books, 1986.

Kehr, Dave. When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Scott, AO and Gabe Johnson. “Critics’ Picks: ‘Lost in America’.” New York Times 3 July http://www.nytimes.com/video/movies/100000000890706/lost-in-america.html

Shales, Tom and James Andrew Miller. Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, as Told by Its Stars, Writers and Guests. New York: Back Bay Books, 2013.

Slansky, Paul. “Albert Brooks is Funnier than You Think.” The Stacks (originally in Playboy (July 1983)). http://thestacks.deadspin.com/albert-brooks-is-funnier-than-you-think-1573238010

Smith, Gavin. “All the Choices.” Film Comment. 35.4, July/August 1999, 14-21.

Vishnevetsky, Ignatiy. “Albert Brooks broke new ground in comedy by drawing out scenes (and laughs).” The A.V. Club. 13 February 2014. http://www.avclub.com/article/albert-brooks-broke-new-ground-in-comedy-by-drawin-201140

Zehme, Bill. “Playboy Interview: Albert Brooks.” Playboy, August 1999.

 

Endnotes

  1. J Hoberman, Film After Film: Or, What Became of 21st-Century Cinema? (London: Verso, 2012), 125-26.
  2. Florian Keller, Andy Kaufman: Wrestling with the American Dream (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 159.
  3. Dave Kehr, When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 96.
  4. Kehr, When Movies Mattered, 98.
  5. Kehr, When Movies Mattered, 95, 97-8.
  6. Kehr, When Movies Mattered, 99.
  7. Kehr, When Movies Mattered, 96.
  8. Kehr, When Movies Mattered, 99.
  9. Harvey O’Brien, “That’s Really the Title?” Deconstructing Deconstruction in The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom (1993) and Real Life (1978),” in Docufictions: Essays on the Intersection of Documentary and Fictional Filmmaking. Eds. Gary D. Rhodes and John Parris Springer (Jefferson NC: McFarland, 2006), 202, 203.
  10. Barth, “Kinks of Comedy,” 46-7.
  11. Barth, “Kinks of Comedy,” 46-7.
  12. Gavin Smith, “Editor’s Pick: Modern Romance,” Film Comment 42.3 (May-June 2006), 75.
  13. Smith, “Editor’s Pick: Modern Romance,” 75.
  14. Gavin Smith, “All the Choices,” Film Comment 35.4 (Jul/Aug 1999), 14.
  15. Ina Rae Hark, “Fear of Flying: Yuppie Critique and the Buddy-Road Movie in the 1980s,” in The Road Movie Book, ed. Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark (London: Routledge, 1997), 213.
  16. Ryan Bishop, Comedy and Cultural Critique in American Film (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013). 155-56.
  17. Meira Kensky, Trying Man, Trying God: The Divine Courtroom in Early Jewish and Christian Literature (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), 3.
  18. Kathless Murphy, “Festivals: Toronto,” Film Comment 32.6 (November/December 1996): 55.
  19. Smith, “All the Choices,” 14.
  20. Smith, “All the Choices,” 16.
  21. Smith, “All the Choices,” 14.
  22. Jack Barth, “Kinks of Comedy,” Film Comment 20.3 (May-June 1984), 47.
  23. Michael Boyd, “Comedy and Perversity: Some American Films of the 1980s,” Bridgewater Review 9.1 (April 1992), 4A.
  24. Kehr, When Movies Mattered, 99.
  25. Kehr, When Movies Mattered, 95.
  26. Chris Fujiwara, Jerry Lewis (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009). Murray Pomerance, ed., Enfant Terrible!: Jerry Lewis in American Film (New York: NYU Press, 2002).
  27. Mike Higgins, Mike. “The Muse,” Sight & Sound, January 2000, accessed 6 March 2016; Roberto DiMatteo, “Real Afterlife,” Film Comment 27.2 (March 1991): 18+.

About The Author

Christian B. Long lives in Brisbane, where he works at Queensland University of Technology and is a fellow at University of Queensland. He is the author of The Imaginary Geography of Hollywood Cinema, 1960-2000 (Intellect, 2017) and articles in Post45 and Canadian Review of American Studies. He is currently editing a collection of essays on Albert Brooks for the Edinburgh University Press ReFocus series.