More Than A Clown Fish: Ranking The Films Of Albert Brooks

Not that much credit needs to be given to comedian/writer/director/actor Albert Brooks for being more than the voice of Marlin in Finding Nemo/Dory, but the man has made seven feature films and I often find myself not seeing the credit he deserves for his work. All of films written and directed by Brooks have recently been made available to stream on Netflix and I took it upon myself to not just watch them all and introduce them to my girlfriend and my mother, but add some of my own thoughts as well.

7. Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World (2005)

There are two films on this list that I had not seen until recently and Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is one of them. I had known this film did not receive the best reception upon initial release and I can sort of see why, but at the same time, this is a film that may have a provocative title, but is completely fitting for Brooks. Yes, the concept of the American government sending a comedian to India where he can report on what makes the population laugh could allow for biting satire, but this is not the same Brooks who made Real Life. Instead, we have a film more concerned with mining humor out of Brooks being stressed out by the 500-page (at least) report he is required to put together. There is actually very little fish-out-of-water humor to be found.

We get the setup and the expected persona of Brooks, who plays himself and happily mocks his own work, most notably The In-Laws remake from 2003, which is balanced by the immense popularity of Finding Nemo from that same year. The film’s best bit comes in the form of a comedy show Brooks and his government travel companions put together, serving as a giant test of a variety of comedy. Brooks completely bombs, but the extended sequence gets everything you want out of what Brooks can do best in front of the faces of many.

Of course, there is a reason why the film ranks so low and that is the lack of taking more chances or finding a suitable ending. This isn’t the first time the ending becomes an issue for a Brooks film, but ‘Looking For Comedy’ particularly feels like it just stops itself, before managing to sufficiently answer its own question. Given that it is a Brooks film, the question sort of morphs into whether or not the Indian people find him funny, but the film, at the very least, does manage to put Jews, Muslims and Hindus all together and have them laugh.

6. The Muse (1999)

Getting right to the point first, I generally believe Sharon Stone to be a terrible actress, suitable for only a few roles (Casino was easily her peak). Placing her as the titular character in The Muse is largely fitting, given her role as a lazy, spoiled and self-absorbed woman who happens to have convinced everyone around her that she is one of the daughters of Zeus (and of course it led to a Golden Globe nomination). Whether or not her status as an actual muse is true is not really the point, as the film gets plenty out of Brooks dealing with all the particulars of making her satisfied enough to inspire his screenwriter character to write an amazing script.

The film mainly jumps between being a character play of Brooks, Stone and Brooks’ character’s wife played by Andie MacDowell navigating the living arrangements during this musing process and the mild satire involving Hollywood, which is always ripe for satire. Much of the fun comes from that Hollywood angle, as Stone’s character can be quite grating. With the showbiz stuff, the film is cameos abound, as Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Rob Reiner and many others all make random appearances, as they seek out Stone’s muse for help.

Week’s prior in the summer of 1999, The Muse had a companion released in the form of Bowfinger, starring Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy (maybe the last great comedy for both). That film played heavily into lighthearted Hollywood satire as well. Martin and Brooks come from an older school of comedy, but the Brooks film only managed to take things so far. The jokes are mostly fine and the story has an actual resolution, there just seems to be an element missing to make this a more impactful film in Brooks’ oeuvre.  

5. Real Life (1979)

Real Life is the other film I had not seen before and is also the feature that seems to channel the darker sensibilities that are not nearly as apparent in the rest of Brooks’ films. The film is also rather prescient, as it originated as satire inspired by the PBS series An American Family, only to represent an early form of the reality television we see now. It manages to bring out an earlier version of Brooks (playing himself), albeit with a tinge of mean-spiritedness that certainly works for what the film is going for.

The concept is quite funny and the film works incredibly well in its opening minutes, as it establishes how we will be following a regular American family for a year. It means using advanced cameras worn as massive helmets by a filmmaking team and regularly seeing Brooks interact with a family far too worried to act natural. The idea is sound, but the results are problematic to say the least for the people involved in this movie within the movie. Charles Grodin stars as the head of the household and is involved in one of the film’s more hilarious sequences, as he botches a surgery (he plays a vet) due to nervousness in front of the camera.

It’s the episodic elements involving the family that largely find this film at its best in fits and starts. Meanwhile, Brooks plays himself as a fame-seeking narcissist who goes through his own emotional breakdown during the production of this film. While having made a number of shorts, this directorial debut certainly has ambition that is only undone a bit by a need to fine-tune what Brooks is more capable of, namely in making Brooks less pushy. That said, the disagreements his fiction version of himself has with the psychiatry experts concerning his impact on the family allow for even more hilarious moments.

4. Modern Romance (1981)

It’s very easy to look at Albert Brooks as a west coast Woody Allen, given his gift for dialogue and self-depiction as a neurotic individual that is still generally smarter and in possession of more edge than many around him. With that in mind, it’s very easy to see Modern Romance as Brooks’ Annie Hall. The two films are not very similar, aside from being somewhat offbeat romantic comedies, but they play on what it is to deal with issues that plague relationships from their perspectives. The main issue in question for Modern Romance stems from Brooks’ inability to determine if his girlfriend is right for him.

Some hail this as Brooks’ masterpiece and given a couple bravura sequences involving Brooks high on Quaaludes, shopping for running shoes and working on sound effects for a film he is editing, it is easy to see why. In addition to a lot of smart work involving Brooks’ commentary on relationships and the hilarious predicaments he puts himself in due to his characters’ intense jealousy, there is some great comedy here. Brooks and his frequent collaborator Monica Johnson have put together a clever screenplay that makes the most of Brooks’ self-loathing, following the breakup he initiates at the beginning of the film.

Still, as funny as the film is, there is the same issue involving the ending that seems to cut the film short of rounding out itself to make for ultimate satisfaction. There is also the matter of Kathryn Harrold as Mary, Brooks’ leading lady for the film who lacks a quality to match him. The character is lacking in much of a personality, which is exactly what is corrected in the films ahead. Those issues aside, Brooks plays well here and gets a great sparring partner in the form of Bruno Kirby, who is maybe at his most understated, given the manic nature of Brooks this time around.

3. Mother (1996)

After meeting with Nancy Reagan, Doris Day and Esther Williams, Brooks managed to have Debbie Reynolds take a lead role in a film for the first time in 27 years. The result is one of Brooks’ best characters, as Beatrice Henderson is a perfect foil for John Henderson. There is a clear evolution in the status of the various characters Brooks plays in his films and Mother finds Brooks in the role of a middle-aged, twice-divorced sci-fi writer. In an effort to deal with his problems with women and his own writer’s block, the character moves back in with his mother.

It’s a straightforward concept that comes naturally for Brooks. A lesser film could simply play up the eccentricities written for Reynolds to embody as an elderly mother against the neurotic nature of Brooks’ character, but something special happens instead. This is a film with gags and humor, but no jokes. It is another character-based comedy and it happens to be very sweet, as we watch a son rebel against the ways of a mother who has accepted a certain state of normalcy that begins to deteriorate as she is poked and prodded by her second-favorite son.

Rob Morrow co-stars in this film as Brooks’ younger brother, a mama’s boy, and the film has great fun in showing how these two differ. He’s also the center of minor conflict in where the film goes, but this is not a high stakes story. It’s discreet in its presentation, but effective in all the right ways. Perhaps the most notably quality is how the film allows itself to shift perspectives. While there is closure for both characters, the film’s final moments with Brooks are notably weaker than that of the mother. It’s a wise move and quite touching, even if it doesn’t match the hilarity that comes from how Reynolds and Brooks talk about eating, shopping for and storing food.

2. Lost In America (1985)

Mother is currently the highest grossing film made by Brooks, but Lost in America may be his all-around most successful. It’s the comedy that took him from being a respected comedian to getting acknowledgement as one of the funniest men in America. It hits a lot of the sweet spots found in the comedy of Brooks, including at least two of his best scenes (when he is fired and a debate with Gary Marshall’s casino owner character). This is also the film that really does feel held up by a decision to conclude the film with an abrupt stop, rather than see where things go.

Lost in America concerns a yuppie couple (Brooks and a very well-cast Julie Hagerty) who decide to get out of their jobs, sell their house and live their lives cruising America in a Winnebago. Complications immediately arise when Hagerty loses all the money gambling during their first stop in Las Vegas. While the film begins as a way to show us how Brooks’ lack of satisfaction in his life comes from having what he considers good-not-great things (house, car, job), the film makes an amazing turn in how it pushes him to play into the idea of wanting exactly the opposite.

Using Easy Rider as his mantra, Brooks’ David Howard is the epitome of a yuppie set loose. The twist of having Hagerty be the one to create a huge problem for the couple is a welcome one, as it allows the film to play on some satiric ideas as well as explore the depth of a relationship and what kind of values are needed in an effort to stay together during even the worst of times.

1. Defending Your Life (1991)

On an alternate timeline, Defending Your Life would have the same kind of legacy that Groundhog Day has obtained. While the Bill Murray classic explores the meaning of life in its own way, Brooks’ best film is a commentary on existence by way of exploring a fantastical, yet familiar understanding of the afterlife.

The premise involves Brooks’ Daniel character getting killed in in a car crash and awakening in Judgement City, the place the dead go to in order to have their lives examined and determine whether they move on or go back to earth to try again. Daniel has a lawyer of sorts played by Rip Torn, who represents him in a court-like setting, where we get to see events from his life and arguments over how he handled himself while living.

The details in explaining this afterlife setting is a lot of fun and allow Brooks to play up his comedic appeal in coming to understand this process. It is most hilarious when it comes to him debating the semantics of things like whether or not he made enough money, while the opposing perspective revolves around the level of fear he had in his life.

What sets this film apart from the others is the how the sweeter side of Brooks emerges in the form of the love story that develops. Meryl Streep moves away from the serious roles she had been taking and plays a completely enjoyable person in Julia. It’s one of my favorite Streep performances for all the ways she gets to be a natural, likable person (no accents or pretenses). The film explores Daniel’s life as well as the relationship he has with Julia, which allows the film to arrive at a wonderful ending, easily filled with the most emotion.

The ending is very satisfying, but it is all we learn through Brooks concerning Judgment City that makes this film so enjoyable. The allegorical stance in regards to how people should live their lives provides an insightful message worth considering as well. Defending Your Life really is all of what Brooks does best, combined with an ambitious and quite positive concept (when it comes to death) that deserves far more recognition. The film is as enjoyable as all the amazing food Daniel is presented with during his stay in Judgment City.

Elsewhere With Albert Brooks

I certainly recommend having a week-long marathon with these films, but there are so many other films I am happy to acknowledge in regards to Brooks’ career. Broadcast News is an obvious standout, as the comedy-drama led to an Academy Award nomination (Brooks lost to Sean Connery in The Untouchables). His turn as a white collar criminal in Steven Soderberg’s Out of Sight was certainly a fun one. You even have solid supporting dramatic turns in recent films such as Concussion and A Most Violent Year. It would be hard to not also mention Brooks’ heavily praised performance as a Jewish gangster in Drive. And all of this says nothing of his voice-over work, which includes five appearances in The Simpsons, including my favorite episode “You Only Move Twice.”

Approaching his 70s at the time I have written this, I can only hope there are more original films in him. Albert Brooks has a great comedic voice and I have very much enjoyed hearing so much of it.


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