I love Albert Brooks. I love him as an actor, as a comedian, as a filmmaker. There’s something about his personality I find very pleasing, which is saying something since his entire comedic persona has been built around being anxious, needy, and neurotic. So when I see there’s a new documentary called Albert Brooks: Defending My Life having its world premiere at this year’s AFI Fest, my finger does not hesitate to click on the “Reserve Ticket” tab on the festival website. It’s something of a pavlovian response, a desire to return to a warm, comforting place.
The documentary, an HBO original which streams on Max on November 11, is part talking heads recounting of the comic’s career, part My Dinner with Andre-style conversation between Brooks and his best friend, Rob Reiner, who also directed. To say this is perhaps Reiner’s best film since The American President might be damning with faint praise, seeing as how his directorial career since then has included And So It Goes and The Magic of Belle Isle. Reiner does a serviceable job of assembling hours of archival footage of Brooks’ standup, talk show appearances, and movie roles into a compelling narrative, but his greatest achievement is in getting his friend of almost 60 years to let his guard down for a long-ranging interview. At 76, Brooks is still as sharp and funny as ever, yet there’s something different about him, an openness and willingness to reveal his true self. To finally, well, defend his life.
What we learn is that like most comedians, Brooks’ sense of humor is rooted in pain. Not that he had a particularly traumatic childhood, mind you. It’s just that being born the youngest of four sons to two middling entertainers who named you Albert Einstein (yes, that is his real name) pretty much guarantees you’ll be cursed with a need to succeed. Brooks’ father, Harry Einstein, was a Borscht Belt-style comic better known by his stage name “Parkyakarkus.” Sickly throughout his life, he died onstage during a Friars Club Roast for Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, when his youngest son was just 11-years-old (the telling of this story is much funnier than you might expect). His mother, Thelma Leeds, was a singer who gave up her career after meeting her future husband while filming New Faces of 1937. Anyone who has seen Brooks’ 1996 comedy Mother can draw inferences about their fraught yet loving relationship.
He met Reiner in their high school drama class (which also included Richard Dreyfuss), and by all accounts, his comedic skills were already tightly honed. Reiner’s father, comedy legend Carl Reiner, once told Johnny Carson that his son’s teenage friend was the funniest person alive, and as witnessed in the archival standup footage the younger Reiner has chosen, that wasn’t too far off. As recounted by various interviewees (including Jon Stewart, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Sarah Silverman, Chris Rock, Larry David, Conan O’Brien and Steven Spielberg) Brooks’ comedy was truly revelatory. His bits bordered on the surreal, deconstructing the hackneyed one-liners and Vaudevillian sketches that made his father famous and twisting them into examinations of comedy itself. To view his early standup is like watching Citizen Kane or listening to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: suddenly, the form has broken and anything seems possible.
Then, suddenly, Brooks stopped touring. Why? As he reveals to Reiner, he was in a hotel room in-between gigs when he came to the realization that he was using comedy as a way to not deal with his issues. One can assume that his father literally dying onstage had something to do with it, but it’s safe to say that what Brooks was after was something more self-exploratory than The Tonight Show could offer.
Like a West Coast Woody Allen, Brooks began writing, directing, and starring in his own films. He satirized reality TV with Real Life, explored a neurotic love affair with Modern Romance, spoofed Yuppie consumerism with Lost in America, traversed the afterlife with Defending Your Life, poked fun at his overbearing mom with Mother, joked about creative bankruptcy in The Muse, and searched for comedic common ground in Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World. Each of these films revealed something about Brooks: his personality, his worldview, his hopes and dreams, his deepest fears. He was discovering something new about himself through work. This applied to his acting in other directors’ films, most notably his Oscar nominated turn as an intelligent but uncharismatic reporter in Broadcast News. Performances in Taxi Driver, Drive, and as a voice in Finding Nemo showed the full range of what he could do as a character actor, not just as a comedian. You could see a new layer peeled back with each film, some new vulnerability exposed.
I guess I’m predisposed to like this movie. I have, after all, watched The Muse multiple times for pure enjoyment. At a brisk 88 minutes, it can feel a bit like a Cliff Notes version of Brooks’ life. Yet there is one way in which Reiner really gets to the heart of his subject, and it’s revealed in the film’s subtitle: Defending My Life. It’s an obvious riff on Brook’s 1991 comedy about a recently deceased ad executive who must prove he was sufficiently brave during his time on Earth in order to move onto the afterlife. During his interview with Reiner, Brooks opines on the greater meaning behind this story, the idea that fear keeps us from truly living our lives, and it dawned on me that this might have been the most personal film of his career. In recent years, Brooks’ creative output has slowed, his choices becoming more selective as he’s grown older. He found love in middle age and settled down to raise two children. One can imagine that this once restless comedic genius no longer feels the need to defend his life, having finally learned to live without fear of it.
This review is from AFI FEST 2023. Albert Brooks: Defending My Life will premiere on HBO and stream on Max on November 11.
Photo courtesy of HBO