I have a longer article in draft about Albert Brooks as a version of Richard Nixon. A version of the question Garry Wills asks of Nixon in Nixon Agonistes, how do you feel hard done by when you’re the Leader of the Free World?, also applies to Albert Brooks characters. Why is it that Brooks’ solidly middle class characters are so miserable? Because they feel like failures. Such is the price of benefitting from the economic order.

I admit that the proposal reads perhaps excessively crabby.

“Albert Brooks Is Failure Studies, by Christian B. Long, unemployed PhD”

If there is a place to begin failure studies in Hollywood cinema, it is Albert Brooks. In Hollywood films, few characters believe in success more than those written, directed, and played by Albert Brooks. Fewer still fail as much. Every film Brooks has written and directed locates its happy ending in financial success undercut by romantic, professional, and psychological “failure.” On the one hand, his comfortably upper middle class characters take their financial success as proof of the wisdom of the system. On the other hand, the system’s inability to provide for romantic, professional, and psychological success strikes his characters as infuriating and unjust.

While it’s not surprising that Brooks’ films, with such non-happy endings, would find box office success hard to come by, it is somewhat surprising that Brooks’ films have been relatively neglected in academic film studies. Highbrow critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and Stuart Klawans have written more about Brooks than academic critics. An MLA keyword search “Woody Allen” generates 284 hits and 234 entries. An MLA keyword search for “the West Coast Woody Allen” Albert Brooks generates 1 hit, an interview about screenwriting.

Brooks’ characters must accept failure because their sole success comes from the top entry in American narrative of success: money. “Albert Brooks” finds the ending for his film, but through mental breakdown and arson (Real Life). David Howard “eat[s] shit” and returns to a job he hates (Lost in America). John Henderson overcomes his writer’s block via the most trite of psychological breakthroughs (Mother). Daniel Miller leads the life he ought to have led, but only after he dies in (Defending Your Life). “Albert Brooks” helps the US Government, but no one can ever know and he also sort of starts a war (Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World). I argue that one significant reason Brooks’ films receive so little attention is their tendency to accept an accumulation of affective indignities and failures as a condition of financial success, a message that hits a little too close to home for most academics.

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