At long last my dream of writing about Albert Brooks has found a forum.Lost in America quit your job

The good people at Senses of Cinema accepted my proposal for a Great Directors entry for Albert Brooks. I have fairly big plans:

This entry in the Great Directors series will examine the career of the American director, writer, and actor Albert Brooks, whose films confront the way in which discomfort, embarrassment, and misery are common but under-shown products of the drive for happiness and success in American life. Brooks’s films explore the boundaries of the comedy of embarrassment, but while the 20th-21st century comedy of embarrassment is predominantly physical and social, Brooks’s comedy is equally ideological: his films consistently confront the embarrassment that comes from believing not wisely and guardedly but too well and too deeply in the rhetoric of success. This article will show that, as one part of an earlier generation of practitioners of the cinema of embarrassment, Brooks deserves more recognition as a great director than he has generally received.

Modern Romance slouch

While Brooks has been called the “West Coast Woody Allen,” this shorthand description misreads his work. The similarities Brooks and Allen share – American Jewish men who write and direct observational comedy films in which they play the lead – obscure the distrust that Brooks the filmmaker has for the American success narrative. Over the past 35 years, he has written and directed nine feature films, written and performed in another, written and directed a series of television shorts and performed in more than a dozen feature films and two television programs. The Village Voice’s Scott Foundas once described Brooks as “a belligerent, cowardly, narcissistic, chronically unhappy Little Tramp looking for somebody (a woman, an audience) to love him” – and meant it as praise. That is to say, Albert Brooks exemplified the cinema of embarrassment long before it took off in the UK and the US with Steve Coogan, Larry David, Ricky Gervais, and Sarah Silverman.

Looking for Comedy 3

On first glance Brooks’s directorial style is anonymous. But in its long takes, general avoidance of music, and discomfort-inducing pacing of dialog (and sometimes monologues), Brooks’s style serves his success-and-happiness questioning project well. Brooks turns away from the comfort of a fast-paced romp in which characters humorously overcome problems and achieve happy endings to focus on the discomfort, emptiness, and embarrassment that comes out of seeking – and sometimes even finding – success and happiness.

Modern Romance triumphant screening

While academic scholarship on Brooks to date is scant, his work has received significant attention from mainstream media outlets in the United Stated, in publications such as The Dissolve, Esquire, and Film Quarterly, to say nothing of his frequent talk show appearances. By considering Brooks as responding formally and thematically to questions of normalcy, happiness, and success and failure (among other things) I also hope to open up further critical conversation about Brooks’s role in the development of American comedy and what it is capable of doing.

Lost in America liquidation math

In this article I will cover Brooks’s entire career, through his films as a director-writer-actor – Real Life (1979), Modern Romance (1981), Lost in America (1985), Defending Your Life (1991), Mother (1996), The Muse (1999), Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (2005) – and his television work as a director-writer-actor – The Famous Comedians School (1976) and his Saturday Night Live short films (1975-1976). My article will show just how extensive his career-long engagement with embarasssment and success anxiety has been in both film and TV.

Drive Albert Brooks badass

His work as an actor for hire (mostly on film, but also on television) falls into two main registers: those that stick closely to his auteur/star persona – Taxi Driver (1976, Martin Scorsese), Broadcast News (1987, James L. Brooks), I’ll Do Anything (1994, James L. Brooks), The Scout (1994, Michael Richie), Doctor Dolittle (1998, Betty Thomas), Out of Sight (1998, Steven Soderbergh), The In-Laws (2003, Andrew Fleming) – and those that turn that identity on its head, especially his gentle turn in My First Mister (2001), his Bond-villain voiceover in The Simpsons Movie (2007), and his menacing role in Drive (2011). Finding Nemo (2003, Andrew Stanton & Lee Unkrich) rests somewhere in-between these two poles of persona-use. These roles, and his work in television – as a voice actor on The Simpsons (1990-2005) and four-episode appearance on Weeds (2008) in particular – his stand-up comedy albums – Comedy Minus One (1973) and A Star Is Bought (1975) – and his novel, 2030 (2011) will all provide minor accents to my larger, film-based, argument about his career-long engagement with embarrassment and anxieties over success and failure beyond the boundaries of film comedy.

Drive Albert Brooks does not approve