From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Real Life (1979)!
Back in May, after watching Albert Brooks’ 1985 film Lost in America, I wrote that I planned on re-watching his 1991 film Defending Your Life the next week. Well, time got away from me, and I do still hope to find the time to re-watch that great film soon. But a few weeks ago, when the mood struck me to again sample an Albert Brooks film, I decided instead to hunt down the last remaining film by Mr. Books that I hadn’t yet seen: Real Life, from 1979.
After having written, directed, and starred in several short films for Saturday Night Live during its early years, Mr. Brooks moved to the big screen with his debut film, Real Life. He plays film director Albert Brooks (not for the last time), who, in the film, has seized upon an amazing idea: the subject of his next movie will be real life. Rather than filming a movie with fake characters portrayed by actors and actresses acting out a fake story, he will choose one average American family and film their lives for a year. Out of that footage he’ll be able to craft a movie more exciting and dramatic than any other motion picture, and it will have something that none of them do: it will be REAL.
Needless to say, Brooks’ “perfect” American family soon turns out to be anything but, and the family’s struggles to maintain their normal lives in the face of constant monitoring by film cameras — not to mention Mr. Brooks’ difficulties at avoiding any interference in their lives — lead to things quickly dissolving into chaos.
I always thought that Albert Brooks was a little bit ahead of his time, but this 1979 film is remarkably prescient in predicting today’s American fascination with “reality TV.” In Real Life, Mr. Brooks was able to portray both the seduction of being constantly on display before others, as well as the inherent horror of such a situation. He was also able to predict, with pinpoint accuracy, the way the act of filming someone’s actions will, without fail, cause subtle (or gross) alterations in that individual’s behavior. (Call it the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of Reality Television.)
Amongst the cast, the standout is Charles Grodin. Mr. Grodin is at the top of his game as Warren Yeager, the beleaguered patriarch of Mr. Brooks’ perfect family. Grodin is able to be sympathetic and rather pitiable all at the same time.
As with most Albert Brooks films, Real Life is a riot. The sequence in which veterinarian Warren Yeager attempts to save an injured horse is a knock-out. But, also as with most Albert Brooks films, there’s also an element of American tragedy in the story. At the end of the film, after all of the ordeals that they go through, the Yeager family take a survey on their experiences. When asked if they would ever again be willing to participate in a similar filmed-reality experience again, the family indicates that sure they would! The moment brings a laugh, but it’s also rather sad. And somehow, deeply true to the American condition.
The old DVD of Real Life that I found (released in 2000) has only two special features: a brief, skippable interview with Albert Brooks (which frustratingly keeps cutting away from the interview to play long clips of the movie which I had just watched), and the theatrical trailer for the film. The trailer is hysterical. It doesn’t consist of any footage from the film — instead, it’s a brief mini-movie made by Mr. Brooks about the film. And if I thought Real Life itself was ahead of its time, I nearly fell off my sofa when watching the trailer, which mercilessly mocks another trend that has become huge in the last twelve months — 3D! That a thirty-year-old trailer could be so perfect for today’s movie-going reality is quite astounding. If you ever rent Real Life on DVD, be sure not to miss this trailer, it’s dynamite.
Even without the trailer, Real Life represents a phenomenal debut film for a powerhouse voice in American comedy. If you’ve never seen it, check it out.