“Only six of these cameras were ever made. Only five of them ever worked. We have four of those.”
You may know Albert Brooks as a post-modern, 1970s stand-up comedian or you’re maybe familiar with his work directing shorts during the very early days of Saturday Night Live. It could be his Oscar nominated role in Broadcast News that caught your attention or possibly his occasional voice work for The Simpsons. Me? It’s his part as Nemo’s nervous and safety conscious father Marlin in Pixar’s Finding Nemo and Finding Dory that introduced me to Mr. Brooks. Also, praised for his directorial work, I decided to try out his freshman outing as a feature film director, Real Life.
Brooks plays a fictionalized version of himself as he seeks to document the life of an Arizona family for a year. He installs high-tech, heat activated wall-cameras in their house, and cameramen wielding state of the art digital cameras (it’ll never catch on) follow the family everywhere. Charles Grodin plays the father of two children (a boy and a girl) and Frances Lee McCain stars alongside him as his wife. Things start out okay but quickly get out of hand when Brooks starts inappropriately interfering and manipulating the lives of the family. This doesn’t please those there to scientifically observe the project and its effects on the family, the objective researchers looking to publish their findings in scholarly publications. The situation gets more and more heated as the film project adds to the stress of the family’s daily lives, negatively effecting everyone. Brooks does his best to keep everything together, but what he ends up with might be far from real life.
The fictional Brooks is a total sleaze out to make a masterpiece that he wants to be real despite his constant influence on events. Sometimes we even question his grip on reality. He doesn’t care about the lives of this family and even lies to them to get his way. We don’t really want him to succeed because of what’s he putting these people through. We don’t want the experiment to stop either because of how fascinating and funny these people are when they interact. The father, on the other hand, is unsure of himself and easily manipulated. Accidentally giving a horse a lethal dose of sedatives due to the pressures of being filmed, Grodin’s character becomes deeply depressed and obsessed about the incident. This isn’t a funny concept on paper. Brooks, however, gives it the right amount of drama to make it serious for Grodin’s character and just enough lightness and comedy to make the dark humor work. Brooks and Grodin, particularly the former, are where most of the humor comes from, the other characters essentially acting as straight men.
Not that the two actors go over the top. Quite the opposite. Broad humor isn’t what too look for in Real Life. Its comedy can be found in subtle lines and small character quirks. So underplayed is the comedy that it would be easy for the multi-tasking viewer, the smartphone user, or the easily distracted to miss a funny zinger or an amusing moment.
Most of the jokes don’t even come off as such. That’s why so many are easy to miss. It’s not about the one-liners but the bizarre, ridiculous and awkward situations our characters are put in. The aforementioned horse scene is one example of the scenes Brooks relishes. Another notable scenario includes early moments in the film when the wife is getting a little too close with Brooks, much to his dissatisfaction. Brooks just wants to make his movie with a happy husband and wife. He even goes as far to tell the wife he’s shallow, with nothing below the surface (which is true). The wife will hear none of that and insists Brooks is a good man, which only succeeds in making Brooks more uncomfortable.
This isn’t even to mention the crazy finale where…well, why don’t I leave that a surprise. Let’s just say that the problems with the film within a film comes to a head with not great results for Brooks.
Not everyone will like this style of comedy, I’m sure. The movie doesn’t always work for me, as a matter of fact. That’s not really a style problem but a writing one. There needed to be a bit more jokes and the events needed a smidge more ludicrousness to make Real Life a true knockout comedy. It’s still a good film with plenty of laughs that shows how people act anything but real once you put a camera on them, forecasting the future that is modern reality television.