California, have recently packed up all their belongings, with plans to move into a nicer space. The move has been prompted by a certainty that in a few days, David, who works at an advertising firm he likes to tell people is one of the best in the nation, will be promoted to senior vice president. A lifelong worrywart, David naturally frets in the lead-up that things aren’t going to go the way they think they will; Linda more intelligibly tells a co-worker (she works as a personnel manager at a mall) that she’s worried that even if David does get a promotion, his belief that it’s going to “change everything” is a pipe dream.

 

To her eye, everything in their lives came to a halt long ago. It’s like they’re killing time until they die. Look at every other time David has gotten a promotion. There’s come more money, more office power. But little about the day-to-day lives of the Howards has been improved per se. Whatever David gets is never enough; when he’s on the phone with a car dealer, finalizing a sale on a Mercedes, it’s a perfect microcosm when he’s stunned to find out that he won’t be getting the leather he has long longed for but rather "Mercedes leather" — vinyl. It’s nice, but it isn’t what he wants — or at least what he’s been led to believe he thinks he wants. 

 

Like clockwork, it’s as if Linda’s private anxieties have been heard by the universe. Hours after her venting session, David barges into her office after having the big meeting. He announces that he has quit his job (i.e., was fired because he told the boss “fuck you” after learning someone else was getting the vice-president gig and he was going to be laterally transferred to an also-good-but-not-good-enough position in New York City) and that Linda should quit hers, too. They’ll start a new life! It’ll be like Easy Rider 

(1969). 

 

Linda says OK — it’s not like her job, which has required her to work in a windowless office for almost a decade, fulfills her, let alone needs Linda Howard and Linda Howard alone to do its bidding. She and David hit the road to nowhere in particular in a pimped-out Winnebago. David liquidates all their assets — that way, they’ll have enough money at their immediate disposal to travel around the country for the rest of their lives. But then Linda fucks it all up. After the couple stops in Las Vegas to get remarried at one of those places where the minister is probably dressed up like Elvis, the hidden gambling addict in her is unleashed while David sleeps in their hastily bought honeymoon suite. When he wakes up, she’s down in their hotel’s casino. She’s been there all night, betting on number 22, and has, we will find out, gambled away all the money she and David had, save for about $1,000, give or take. In one of the movie’s most tragically funny scenes, David tries to convince the hotel-casino’s owner (Garry Marshall) to give them all their money back by pitching a loony ad campaign. But it’s no use. You know it’s futile the second he accidentally calls the man a schmuck for liking a certain entertainer. 

 

Lost in America is the anticlimactic antithesis to the all-too-common fantasy of abandoning one’s current life and hitting the road, seeing what happens. It’s also like a retort to not only Easy Rider but also to The Long, Long, Long Trailer, that goofy 1954 comedy Lucy and Ricky made when not shooting I Love Lucy (1951-57) in which they played newlyweds who for their honeymoon decided to travel the nation for a full year with a humongous mustard-yellow trailer hitched to their Mercury Monterey convertible. It was full of screwball shenanigans; it made even the chaos that inexorably consumed them look fun. Lost in America, in contrast, is sobering. It will finally wind up in a place where Linda and David have nowhere else to go, really, except for a tiny town in Arizona where there are no job openings. Well, at least not jobs like the ones they’d taken on in the past: David gets a gig as a crossing guard (he makes a handsome $5.50 an hour), and Linda lands a position as an assistant manager at a Wienerschnitzel place where her boss is a teenage boy with a cheese-stache. 

 

I do wonder what Lost in America might have been like had Linda not wasted all the money and things had gone according to plan. But it would likely come to the same conclusions Brooks finally lands on: that you cannot expect all your woes to be solved simply by packing up and leaving the place where they brewed the longest; that with some distance from a life you’ve decided is unfulfilling, you might eventually realize what you’ve taken for granted and yearn to go back to it. It’s an observant, harsh comedy; it’s so harsh that you almost don’t want to immediately classify it as a comedy because it’s infused with so much doom. But it’s also too amusing to be a horror film. 

 

It feels like Lost in America ends abruptly, but that feeling of 

abruptness is probably better for the feature than well-roundedness. Everything that happens in this movie is so abrupt that of course it’s going to end with another jerk. It’s a movie that keeps steady the tenor Brooks’ too-few movies share: ambition — whether rooted in art, love, or one’s career — sabotaged by one’s anxieties coming to the fore and then basically eating the fore. Brooks isn’t playing universal characters in his movies, necessarily. Instead, these men are embodiments of who we could be if all our most damaging neuroses were all out in the open and commingled. It would be a miracle if they didn't wind up destroying everything.

 

Real Life: A-

Modern Romance: A-

Lost in America: B+

A

t the beginning of Brooks’ next project, Lost in America (1985), everything hinges on a promotion. David and Linda Howard (Brooks and Julie Hagerty), a long-married couple of yuppie types living in

meeting for dinner. They’ve for so long been an on-off pair that when one party attempts to break it off, the other’s immediate reaction is to think it’s a cry-wolf fake-out. But at that dinner — just moments after they’ve ordered — Robert calls it off for the umpteenth time. He’s serious about parting ways this time. He tells Mary that he thinks they are a lost cause — like Vietnam. Robert, like the “Albert Brooks” of Real Life before him, is obsessive and unhealthily self-absorbed. We get a hint of this when, seconds after breaking Mary’s heart once again, Robert suggests they still go through with dinner anyway, thinking Mary’s being so upset is a little unreasonable.

 

Modern Romance, which will see Robert and Mary continue with their on-off cycle, is an anti-romantic comedy; watching it, it sometimes felt to me like a horror movie. It’s an anti-romantic comedy where the hero is emphatically jealous and equates stalker-ish behavior — like snooping through Mary’s phone records, like crashing a super-important business meeting at a restaurant because he’s paranoid that she’s seeing someone on the side — with expressions of love. It’s an anti-romantic comedy where the heroine puts up with so much and forgives so easily that we’re exhausted for her. 

 

The ending of Modern Romance makes for such a poison-spiked regurgitation of the happy denouements of rom-coms from days past that we think to ourselves that this couldn’t get any darker. Then we read the epilogue title card. Most of the time, rom-coms are paeans to love and the funny pitfalls that frequently come with falling in it; Modern Romance is, too, a paean to love, but the curveball is that its leading man is toxic masculinity incarnate. This paean is off-key. Icikily, he’s the sort of man who perceives himself as an exemplary nice guy and reasons that his anxieties — which manifest into damaging behaviors — are only really harmful to him. Many viewers watching Modern Romance might get to know Robert and think of him as the embodiment of all their worst traits at their very worst; hopefully there isn’t (but I’m sure there probably is) any further mirroring going on. 

 

Like Real Life, the movie can be very funny in spite of its fundamental darkness. In the latter feature, the comic highlight was the almost absurdist scene in which Albert’s cameras come with Warren to watch him perform a horse 

surgery only to also inadvertently watch Warren kill the horse after, being so distracted by the cameras, he accidentally orders a gratuitous dosage of anesthesia. The best comic set piece in Modern Romance also has an absurdist bent. The director (James L. Brooks) of the film Robert and his co-editor, Jay (Bruno Kirby), are splicing — an ersatz space opera starring George Kennedy — has a problem with this one scene where Kennedy is running down a hall. He thinks the footsteps aren’t loud enough. The corridor is metallic, so shouldn’t it be clangier — have a just-right amount of echo? 

 

Robert and Jay’s efforts to get what the director wants in the recording room are pretty riotous; the tipping point comes when someone else in the room suggests they repurpose a previously used “Hulk running” sound and see how it comes across. It’s mostly a needless scene, or maybe it isn’t; I was sort of charmed by Robert during it, and saw for a second a flash of why Mary likes him. Flashes of charm aside, you wish, by the end of Modern Romance, that the days of Robert and Mary would just come to an end — no more on-off business. It’ll be better for everybody. I keep thinking of this conversational omen traded by the couple as they’re in the car in one scene. Mary is driving, and Robert tries to steal a kiss from her. She asks him to stop — she wants to avoid getting in a wreck — but he thinks she’s being dramatic. “A kiss is more important than life, anyway, isn’t it?,” he replies earnestly.

M

odern Romance (1981), Brooks’ follow-up to Real Life, begins with a breakup. Robert (Brooks), a neurotic film editor, and Mary (Kathryn Harrold), a comparatively composed bank executive, are

jumpstart his career. Albert thinks it would be novel to make the documentary-movie equivalent of An American Family 

— a likely two-hour-long picture capturing the everyday lives of an ordinary suburban clan. People will love whatever he discovers, he confidently predicts, because they will relate to the banalities he captures and be so thrilled by that relatability.

 

Albert doesn’t think his product has to be juicily dramatic. There is no insistence, at least that we hear of, on snagging major, dramatically enriching familial turning points, like, for instance, the disintegration of a marriage or the coming-out of one of the kids akin to An American Family. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be much of an angle from Albert aside from showing American life as he thinks it is. He isn’t posturing the same way current-day reality-show craftsmen do à la egging on — and/or carefully stitching together through editing — drama. He trusts that as the experiment goes along, he will know how to guide it. For his stunt, he and his “team” (essentially a film crew adorning helmet-like cameras paired with a fleet of psychiatrists who will ostensibly work out any kinks hindering the proceedings) will follow a family — the nuclear-archetypal Yeagars — for a year. Acclaim, Albert thinks, is built in. He’s dead-seriously preparing himself for not only an Oscar to sit on a freshly dusted shelf but also potentially a Nobel Prize. 

 

The Yeagars are an average, suburban white family, made up of a husband and a wife (Charles Grodin and Frances Lee McCain) and two kids (Lisa Urette and Robert Stirrat). The emotionally stretched-thin matriarch, Jeannette, stays home; the doughy, emotionally inarticulate Warren works as a veterinarian. We don’t know very much about the kids aside from that the girl, a middle-schooler, is echtly angsty — she gets pissed when Albert says he won’t film her for her own scene wearing this pretty dress even though he promised! The Yeagars were the second of two families chosen as finalists at the end of a long tryout process. They were selected mostly because they live in Arizona while the other family lived in Wisconsin. Could you imagine having to spend the summer in Wisconsin? 

 

Real Life isn’t quite a sendup of reality-television conventions: the form, obviously, didn’t have the omnipresence it does now in 1979, so there was nothing, really, to send up. Real Life is more a black comedy in which an affrontive artistic vision from a self-absorbed creator more concerned with optics than genuine craftsmanship becomes a bomb-like device. The film is an acidic satirization of the exploitative lengths to which entertainment impresarios will go, and the callous emotional stances they will take, to make their projects sing as beautifully as they think they can. It might not work as a parody much, but there is an undeniable prescience to Real Life. Fragmented as Albert’s methods are to make his vision a reality, how different is he, when looking specifically at his aspirations, than showrunners like Adam DiVello or Mike Fleiss, whose desires are just as mad but who just have better strategies to get what they want?  

 

The film makes us laugh — although those laughs after some time start leaving figurative flesh wounds — because it’s a sort of unwitting inverse of the reality-TV products we see now. Those are well-oiled machines; this is a machine that badly needs an oil change but will go untended to until there is an explosion. It’s unclear what Albert’s end goal, aside from winning acclaim, is. DiVello and Fleiss obviously wanted to create empires. Does Albert also want to? Or, in his noncommittal mind, does he purely think critical success will lend his comedy career a new validity, and following this experiment return to the form he went after in the first place with a little more gusto and respect from others? There isn’t anything Real Life wants to say, I don’t think — not that concisely, anyway. It’s mostly a movie as implosion, and the implosion happened to be caught on camera. When the shoot started, Warren drank coffee with his left hand; midway through production, he’s nervously drinking using both — an effect, it seems, of always being watched. 

 

The worse things get in Real Life (Warren eventually has what he thinks is a nervous breakdown following a series of almost comically unfortunate coincidences), the more Albert becomes convinced that if he just tries doing            , then everything will work out! Doesn’t matter if the advice from the group of psychiatrists during weekly check-ins (one suggests, almost too obviously, that Albert turns the cameras off in the evenings and on the weekends) is easy to employ. It has to be Albert’s way, which is mostly a lot of obtrusions he mistakes for normal drops-by. It’s no big deal when a frazzled documentarian who lives across the street from you comes to your house unannounced dressed up as a clown to try to cheer you up. 

 

Albert’s progressing exasperation is very funny, in the love-it-or-hate-it cringe-comedy sense. He’s so egomaniacal that anything he does that he thinks is compassionate comes across more like a sociopath imitating what he believes is sympathetic behavior. After getting pointed feedback about how his handling of the family is affecting them emotionally, he immediately frets over how some of their decor might look on camera. He also can’t get over it when someone remarks that he looks a little heavier than he had when filming started. “These are peoples’ lives, and you’re talking about the damn wallpaper!,” the most consistently vexed psychiatrist on call, Dr. Cleary (J.A. Preston), exclaims. Soon enough he’ll walk off the project, fed up with Albert’s compassionless, potentially dangerous direction, then magnetize negative attention onto the production by writing a multi-part newspaper exposé about what he witnessed. Unbelievable! Albert fumes. How could he say such awful things? The movie ends with Albert burning the Yeagers’ house down.

From 1979's Real Life.

Brooks” we come to know is a solipsistic primadonna with a Fitzcarraldo (1982)-style filmmaking complex. Though his ambitions, as we will find out, will not pay off the same way they did for Werner Herzog. Still, comparing “Albert Brooks” (whose fictional counterpart I’ll refer to simply as Albert) to Herzog in Real Life isn’t that much of a stretch — that is if we’re comparing how their madness stems from a "vision." 

 

In the film, Albert, a comedian desperate to get a leg up in his flagging career, is spurred by PBS' years-ago success with the reality-TV experiment An American Family. As a sort of stunt, he decides before we first meet him that he should lead the way on a similar project to

n writer-director-actor Albert Brooks’ directorial debut, deliciously chaotic faux-documentary Real Life (1979), Brooks is playing himself. Or, “himself.” The “Albert

I

On Real LifeModern Romance, and Lost in America, three projects from writer-director-actor Albert Brooks

The Human Comedy 

November 4, 2020  

  

Triple Feature