Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Brooks At His Best

I really like Albert Brooks.

I guess I've always liked him, but it was awhile before I started to recognize who he was. Apparently, his career began with some TV work, but I remember seeing him when he was in his first movie role, in Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver."

Well, I say I remember seeing him in that movie, but, honestly, I can't say that I noticed him the first time I saw it. Maybe the second time. Probably the third time.

OK, most likely it was the fourth time ... or even the fifth time.

The star of that movie, of course, was Robert De Niro, and there were other people who were either recognizable at that time or on their way to being recognizable — Jodie Foster, Peter Boyle, Cybill Shepherd, Harvey Keitel — so not many people remember that he was in that film, even if they have seen it several times — but he was.

That wasn't your typical Albert Brooks fare, though. "Taxi Driver" was a drama, and, while Brooks did well in his role, his calling is clearly comedy.

For some folks, he is only a voice. At other times, his primary contribution has been as a director and/or writer.

I enjoy his acting and his facial expressions. He reminds me a lot of the late George Carlin. It can be entertaining just to watch him, but he is a very cerebral person, too.

There is more, much more, to Brooks than meets the eye. He delights in observing the human condition and spotlighting its inconsistencies.

There are many layers to Brooks' talent, just as there were to Carlin's.

In a discussion about Brooks' ability as an actor, I would have to say that my absolute favorite of his performances was his work in "Broadcast News," but it was 20 years ago today that one of the best examples of Brooks' skill as actor, writer and director made its debut.

I'm speaking of "Defending Your Life," the film in which Brooks co–starred with Meryl Streep as two recently deceased people who must defend their earthly existences in trial–like settings in the afterlife.

As Rip Torn (who played Brooks' defender) told him, it wasn't really a trial. It was more like a review of a person's life to see if that person had learned all the things he/she should have learned during his/her time on earth. If he/she had, he/she could go on to the next level. If he/she had not, he/she would have to go back.

Sort of an afterlife performance review. Sounds like a lot of pressure, doesn't it?

But it isn't all bad. I mean, you can eat as much as you want and never gain an ounce — and, as fantastic as the food seems to be in this movie, that's a real plus, considering that Judgment City is something of a purgatory.

If the time one spends there is measured in the famous eons of the Catholic faith, I can think of worse ways to spend an eon than being able to eat whatever you want and as much as you like.

While the movie was a comedy, it also had elements of drama. But Brooks managed to turn the dramatic moments into ironic interludes that always brought a chuckle ...

... like when he showed that, in spite of a badly broken leg suffered in a snowmobile accident, he had crawled three miles for help — and then had to justify why it was not evidence of cowardice that he had never ridden a snowmobile again.

The issue was not his survival instinct, his prosecutor reminded everyone. It was his courage.

Nor was his decision about cowardice, Brooks countered — and proceeded to outline the reasons why snowmobiling just wasn't his thing.

"I hated it!" he protested, calling the snowmobile "a rotten contraption."

Anyway, Brooks, being the star–crossed individual he almost always is in his films, was, in the end, being sent back to earth while Streep was being sent to her next phase. But something happened to convince the watching judges that Brooks truly was worthy of advancement.

I won't tell you what happened because, if you haven't ever seen it, you should.

I'll just say this. It really is Brooks at his best.