By a curious coincidence, Albert Brooks both started his feature-directing career and ended it by making what amounts to the same movie. In 1979’s Real Life (currently streaming on the Criterion Channel), he plays a comedian named Albert Brooks who embarks on an ambitious, year-long project to film the daily lives of an average American family. In 2005’s Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, he plays a comedian named Albert Brooks who’s recruited by the U.S. State Department for a two-month fact-finding mission to ascertain what makes the average Muslim laugh.
In both situations, the character Brooks plays (hereafter, Albert) sets his sights high and has unrealistic expectations about what he can expect out of them. Early in Real Life, he brings up the possibility of not only winning an Oscar, but a Nobel Prize, too. This is echoed by the Medal of Freedom dangled in front of him in Looking for Comedy and his belief that Nobel might come calling when he mistakenly believes he’s made a breakthrough. It’s Albert’s propensity for charging in, heedless of any pitfalls he might encounter along the way that causes him to get in over his head, a character trait with its roots in the short films he wrote and directed for Saturday Night Live’s first season in 1975.
“The next time I see you, I hope and pray to be more of what you want.”
Brooks appears as himself in four of the six shorts he made for the show, planting seeds that he would further develop when he made the leap to the big screen. In his second, untitled short, Albert narrates a series of home movies purportedly shot by his father in which his privacy is constantly invaded. There’s also a telling moment when he’s interrupted by his inquisitive young daughter, who’s quickly ushered out so the film can get back on track. (“That’s my little girl,” Albert deadpans. “You won’t be seeing her again.”)
Brooks hit his stride with his third short, the 13-minute “Operation,” in which he fulfills a lifelong ambition to be a doctor by performing a coronary bypass on a heart patient with the assistance of some skeptical professionals. The chief surgeon, in particular, does little to mask his contempt for the dilettante who hired him, but he’s willing to take Albert’s money nonetheless. The same goes for the institute he visits in his final short, “Audience Research,” to find out what he can do to appeal to a wider audience. Based in Phoenix, the National Audience Research Institute gives Albert plenty of raw data to sift through, but it wouldn’t be used to retool his SNL shorts as Brooks’s contract wasn’t renewed. Instead, the next time he appeared on film as himself it would be on the big screen, and he wouldn’t come out of it looking so hot.
“Why did I pick reality? Why did I pick that? Out of all the subjects, I don’t know anything about it.”
Taking inspiration from the 1973 PBS documentary series An American Family, which followed the Louds of Santa Barbara for seven months, Brooks and his Real Life co-writers, Monica Johnson and Harry Shearer, embedded Albert with the Yeagers – veterinarian Warren, wife Jeanette, children Lisa and Eric – chosen because they live in Phoenix. (The alternates are from Minneapolis, but Albert would rather not winter there.) Right from the start, Albert draws too much of the focus, joking through the introductory press conference to the annoyance of the two scientists he’s hired as psychological consultants. The last straw for one comes when he breaks into song, backed by as much of the Mort Lindsey Orchestra from The Merv Griffin Show as the budget will allow.
So begins Albert’s fixation on how much things cost, which continues with the flashback to Boulder’s National Institute of Human Behavior, where he touts the heat-sensing wall cameras they’ve gotten from Japan and the Ettinaur 226XL, a diving-bell-like camera rig from Holland that provides some of Real Life’s funniest sight gags as its operators dart around, failing to be inconspicuous. He also makes a big deal out of the fact that he’s bought the house across the street from the Yeagers and sunk a lot of money into decorating it. He has it all to himself, though, as unlike the SNL short with his “daughter,” there’s no indication this Albert has any personal life to speak of. He even discourages a come-on from Jeanette when she experiences a crisis in her marriage by accurately pointing out how shallow he is. (It’s also likely he’s aware that Bill and Patricia Loud separated midway through the filming of An American Family and would rather not precipitate the breakup of the family he’s documenting.)
Throughout, Albert’s primary concern is capturing enough drama to keep the viewer (and the head of the studio) interested, which is why he skips Lisa’s confirmation to accompany Warren as he performs an emergency bypass operation on a horse, which the distracted vet botches “well ahead of schedule.” Soon after, the family slips into a funk and Albert experiences his own setback as a feedback session with the Institute reveals their concerns that he’s “altering reality” and his leading man is coming off unlikable. Albert vehemently denies both charges and forges on, gifting the Yeagers with his large-screen TV and sending them on photogenic outings that fail to offset the bad press the project gets, inspiring all parties concerned to pull the plug after only two months. Albert doesn’t take this lying down, though, and brainstorms an apocalyptic finale for his film, which found its echo in Brooks’s last, made 26 years later.
“In comedy, you try things. Some work, some don’t. You’re allowed to bomb. It’s not the end of the world.”
The Albert Brooks who goes Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is far removed from the one in a clown costume who burned down a house at the end of Real Life. Now most famous for voicing an animated clownfish, Albert is called in for a casting session with Penny Marshall, who tartly rejects him for her remake of Harvey. With no other job offers forthcoming, and his wife trolling eBay for expensive knickknacks, Albert heeds the call of Senator Fred Dalton Thompson (also playing himself), whose committee flies him to New Delhi with two State Dept. flacks in tow. Having mellowed with age, this Albert is endlessly self-deprecating, but still chafes at the indignities of flying economy and having his office in a call center. He also frets about the 500-page report he’s expected to deliver, a running joke that never runs out of steam.
When he makes little headway conducting person-in-the-street interviews, Albert hits upon performing two stand-up concerts – one in New Delhi, the other somewhere in Pakistan – where he can air out some decades-old bits, including his bad ventriloquist act. After the first show bombs and they’re denied permission to enter Pakistan, his minders work out how to smuggle him across the border so he can meet a group of aspiring comedians who boost his ego by laughing uproariously at the same material his Indian audience sat through stone-faced. Riding that high, Albert accepts an invite from Al-Jazeera, but passes on the anti-Semitic sitcom they pitch him, and is further deflated when rising tensions in the region force him to curtail his trip. The kicker comes during his homecoming celebration, when his wife toasts him as “the Henry Kissinger of comedy” while, unwatched in the corner, CNN reports on the resumption of armed conflict between India and Pakistan, unwittingly touched off by his actions. At least when Albert set fire to the Yeagers’ house, he had the decency to sit and watch it burn.
“Directed by Albert Brooks” is now streaming on the Criterion Channel.