The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Albert Brooks
Alright folks, let's get one thing straight. Albert Brooks was a bad-ass long before Nicolas Winding Refn decided to cast him in DRIVE. While he may not have ever jammed a fork in someone's eye on-screen before Refn had a go at him, throughout his long career Brooks has been a force to be reckoned with. As a writer-director of his own big-screen vehicles, Brooks has often been called a West Coast Woody Allen. Born Albert Einstein (Bob Einstein- aka Super Dave Osborne is his brother), Brooks started as a stand-up before parlaying that success into some work-for-hire as an actor – notably as the cynical campaign office manager in TAXI DRIVER – and as writer-director of pre-filmed segments during the first season of Saturday Night Live.
From there, Brooks went on to write-direct and star in his first feature, the pioneering mockumentary REAL LIFE, which led to a whole slew of relationship comedies including MODERN ROMANCE, the classic Yuppie satire LOST IN AMERICA, DEFENDING YOUR LIFE, MOTHER, THE MUSE and more. He also remained much in-demand as an actor, notably for director James L. Brooks, with him starring opposite William Hurt and Holly Hunter in the classic BROADCAST NEWS, as well as the less-successful I'LL DO ANYTHING, which was originally a musical with songs by Prince – only to have all the music cut at the eleventh hour. Around the mid-nineties, Brooks also became much in-demand as a voice over artist, often putting in guest spots on The Simpsons (most famously as Homer's Bond-villain boss Hank Scorpio) before hitting pay-dirt with Pixar's FINDING NEMO, and this week's sequel FINDING DORY.
While all that would have been enough to make him a legendary figure, Brooks has totally reinvented himself in recent years as a character actor, often taking on serious, non-comedic roles. It began with his part in 1998’s OUT OF SIGHT, but DRIVE seemed to mark a stark departure in the kind of roles he found himself in-demand for. Since then, he’s also done rock-solid work as Oscar Isaac's lawyer in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR and recently stole scenes as Will Smith's boss in CONCUSSION.
While BROADCAST NEWS is probably the best movie Brooks has starred-in (TAXI DRIVER isn’t being considered here as it’s a very small part), as a writer-director-actor, his masterpiece, for me, remains LOST IN AMERICA. I actually only saw this one for the first time a few years ago, when Drew Barrymore picked it as one of her “Essentials” while she was guest-hosting on TCM. In it, Brooks plays a bored Yuppie who, along with his wife (played by the great Julie Hagerty) decides to chuck his six-figure job, buy a motor-home, and live a life on the open road, a la EASY RIDER. One quick stopover in Vegas, where the wife liquidates their nest-egg at the crap tables, is all it takes for this eighties fantasy to turn into a comic nightmare. The bit where Brooks tries to convince Garry Marshall's casino manager to give all their money back is a classic (“you can just give it back!”).
This is an impossible category for Brooks. While he's had a few flops, Brooks's movies have always been more traditionally underrated than overrated. I guess the only thing I can list here is his paycheck part as Jacob the depressed tiger in the abysmal Eddie Murphy remake, DR. DOOLITLE, which, shockingly, made so much money is spawned a sequel. Luckily, Brooks sat that one out.
One of my favorite Brooks movies is DEFENDING YOUR LIFE. A staple of pay-TV during my childhood, in this one he stars as another mild-mannered yuppie, who after dying in a car accident, finds himself on trial for the privilege to move on-to another plane of existence in this place called Judgment City, where he falls in love with Meryl Streep, who plays a woman in the midst of very different experience. A classic opposites-attract situation, Brooks and Streep have remarkably good chemistry and that, paired with a superb supporting cast (it has Rip Torn at his best), a terrific premise, a good score and a deft mix of comedy and pathos make this one a neglected classic.
I must admit that Brooks's part in BROADCAST NEWS hits pretty close to home for me. When not writing for JoBlo.com, I work in the anglophone Montreal media, primarily behind-the-scenes in radio copy-writing, but also occasionally on-air. I've done it all, from anchoring to news and traffic, and I often do live TV hits where I talk – mostly – film, in addition to my junket-work for JoBlo. This all relates to BROADCAST NEWS because the first time I ever had to do a live TV hit, in a clip that's mercifully never found its way online, I did pretty much what Brooks does here, which was break-out into uncontrollable sweats and stammering. Luckily, my predicament cleared-up really fast once I took a deep breath, but what's depicted here by Brooks is the stuff of nightmares for anyone who's ever done a live TV hit.
Always a busy guy, Brooks, in addition to this week's FINDING DORY, has another lucrative voice gig coming up in this summer's animated THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS. He also still turns-up on The Simpsons from time-to-time and recently wrote a novel, “2030”. While he seems to be more focused on straight acting/voice gigs, I'd love to see him take another stab at writing-directing. Anyone who follows his Twitter feed can tell you Brooks has a smart take on virtually any subject under-the-sun, and another well-written satire would be most-welcome.
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