Modern film fans know Albert Brooks as an actor, of course. Out of Sight, Finding Nemo, Drive, This Is 40, and Concussion have seen to that, and both Taxi Driver and Broadcast News are staples for even novice cinephiles. But Brooks’ true impact has come as a storyteller who helped Saturday Night Live find its initial success with a series of imaginative short films before jumping to a string of remarkable features.
While that body of work — a collection of unpretentious examinations of the kinds of small tortures and big struggles we’re all familiar with as told through the struggles of a semi-autobiographical neurotic everyman — is celebrated by many comedy nerds and critics, it isn’t as ubiquitous as a lot of lesser comedies. Part of the reason for this is because Brooks’ films have been (by modern standards) hard to find thanks to their absence from streaming services like Netflix. As you may have heard, that barrier is set to fall on July 1 thanks to Netflix’s decision to make available all of Brooks’ work as a writer/director.
If you’ve seen all of Brooks’ films, then you surely know what to do — particularly as you look at your calendar and see only overdone hot dogs and wimpy backyard fireworks on the agenda for this long weekend. If you’re eager to explore or happy to complete your tour of Brooks’ filmography, though, we wanted to suggest a playlist for you that briefly explains the majesty of these films and which puts them in a better order. After all, what need is there to go in blind or go chronological when there are more vibrant traits that connect these films than the order they were made? In this case, those traits are clearly marked to demonstrate Brooks’ take on Discovery, Fame and Success, Relationships, and The Meaning of Life.
Lost in America (1985)
The opus on the theme of mid-life crises, Lost in America casts Brooks as a frustrated Los Angeles ad-exec who convinces his wife (the outstanding Julie Hagerty) to buy an RV and take to the road in the spirit of Easy Rider after their upward mobility runs into a wall. Unfortunately, they spring a money leak in Las Vegas and almost come undone before leaving the Southwest. Lost in America may be Brooks’ finest work, and it’s a tremendous deconstruction of the wistful “leave it all behind and start a new adventurous life” daydream that many of us wish we could follow.
Hagerty is a perfect comedy partner for Brooks and the rare co-star who seems willing to try and match his energy. Hagerty’s range, in particular, comes in handy as she memorably transforms and gloriously comes undone in a casino before crashing down, and eventually hitting her breaking point with Brooks a few moments later once they get back on the road. Brooks’ change is more subtle and slow burn as he moves from being driven by anger and a sense of entitlement to becoming a man possessed, who is so unflinching in his commitment to his (increasingly ridiculous) road fantasy that he ignores calamity, logic, and the near-end of his marriage in an effort to feed that increasingly poisonous pursuit. Co-written, like most of Brooks’ films, with longtime writing partner Monica Johnson, Lost in America is proof that Brooks was not only willing to make his audience uncomfortable, but that he was also willing to be unlikeable, which he hasn’t really allowed himself to be in his later films — or at least not to the extent that he does in this film while still (rightly) confident that he would get laughs.
Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (2006)
The concept is somewhat bold: George W. Bush wants Albert Brooks to go on a mission to India to determine what makes Muslims laugh. Unfortunately, the execution lags in places and the film, Brooks’ last to-date as a writer/director, got slammed by critics and rejected by audiences. But that shouldn’t dissuade you from watching Brooks portray himself as a naive boob who, obliviously, almost causes an international incident while trying to get himself a Medal of Freedom. In fact, if you’re a fan of cringe-inducing comedy where someone commits themselves to awkwardness for the sake of a bit, there can be no higher delight than watching Brooks bomb during a New Delhi stand-up comedy performance.
Fame And Success
Real Life (1979)
That is a great montage. But it isn’t the wild comedy circus that Real Life‘s trailer (which is almost totally detached from all information about the film) is.
Brooks’ 1979 feature debut feels like a prophecy of doom today as we collectively find ourselves entranced by shows that focus on the lives of “real” people — be they hoarders or internet scam artists in search of love. In the film, Brooks plays a filmmaker (and an exaggerated version of himself) who brings a little too much Hollywood to a seemingly normal family that he is observing for a documentary film on American life. Charles Grodin co-stars as a mild-mannered veterinarian and a perfect contrast to Brooks’ manic persona.
The Muse (1999)
More a look at the fickleness of Hollywood than another take on the quest for fame, Brooks plays a declining screenwriter who is willing to go through personal hell to gain an edge by way of a literal muse in this 1999 comedy co-starring Sharon Stone as the aforementioned mythical being. The Muse is a bit softer than other film industry send-ups like The Player (though it does have its share of cameos), but it gets its shots in while mostly focusing on Brooks’ mounting frustration as he sees his life get consumed by the muse’s demands. Overall, this is a fair effort that probably slots toward the bottom of any list of Brooks’ work due more to the quality of those other films than The Muse‘s deficiencies.
Modern Romance (1981)
In this 1981 anti-rom com, Brooks plays a neurotic film editor who falls through every conceivable phase of post-breakup mania including reuniting with his on-again/off-again girlfriend. From his Saturday Night Live short films to Real Life, Brooks focused on a broader kind of parody. Here and in Lost in America, though, he gets a bit more subtle, expounding on subjects like romance and wanderlust and then shining a light on the absurd consequences that come when those things take over a life. It’s a maturation that adds depth and timelessness to much of Brooks’ work.
With all due respect to Modern Romance and the familiar pain that it highlights, no Brooks film feels as relatable as Mother. In the 1996 comedy, Brooks’ neurotic artist character (another writer, this time of mildly successful novels) with an inferiority complex wrestles with his relationship with his mother (the great Debbie Reynolds, in a razor-sharp return to relevancy). The result is tender, intimate, and life-changing as Brooks’ character takes a breath once he discovers a kindred spirit in his mother, realizing that she is a fully formed adult with secrets and interests that mirror his own and not merely, his mother.
That description shouldn’t lead you to think that Brooks completely abandons his proven formula — there are still ample laughs that come from the awkwardness on display when Brooks’ character settles into his new life as his mother’s live-in companion. But more than any other Brooks film, Mother has a sincere message. There’s no satire here, just a genuinely endearing and smart comedy with something to say about the way we look at our parents.
The Meaning of Life
Defending Your Life (1991)
Brooks’ most ambitious work, this high-concept fantasy about life after death puts forth a lot of interesting ideas about the intricacies of the afterlife, including the notion that we’re required to defend our poor life choices. Fun. The film also benefits from the charming presence of Meryl Streep, who co-stars as a soul who is way out of Brooks’ character’s league, but who, nonetheless, pairs with his character for a surprisingly tender love story that gives this imaginative film its beating heart.
For now, that’s it. It’s been ten years since Brooks took to the director’s chair, and in that time his career as a supporting actor has been reinvigorated with roles in Drive and Concussion. Will the potentially broader appreciation for this singular talent and a new familiarity with Netflix as a partner nudge Brooks back to a keyboard? Who knows? Making a movie from first word to last cut is a challenge, and living up to one’s own legacy must be an intimidating and probably annoying factor when you’re at Brooks’ level.
This hasn’t stopped Woody Allen (who is Brooks’ only real peer, even though Allen has both preceded and proceeded him), who seems comfortable mixing vanity projects that recycle similar characters and stories with the occasionally unique item. In the end, though, maybe Allen likes to embrace that herculean effort more than Brooks does, or maybe he has more of a burning need to tell stories — even if we’ve heard them before. That’s completely fine if that’s the case. These seven films, when lumped together, represent a tremendous, daring, and inventive career. And that’s what matters in the end: impact.