After bringing cinematic style to the small screen, Albert Brooks brought TV style to the big screen. Comedy auteur Brooks gained mainstream attention by creating offbeat short films for early seasons of Saturday Night Live in the mid-’70s, then graduated to features with Real Life, a satire of invasive documentary series like PBS’ groundbreaking 1973 show An American Family. Brooks plays an unflattering character who is also named Albert Brooks, a shallow Hollywood hustler who travels to Phoenix with a plan of spending a year shooting the normal activities of a normal American family. He’s accompanied by a crew of cameramen wearing absurd helmet-like cameras (the movie’s best running gag), and a pair of psychiatrists who observe the filming to ensure the subject family isn’t “adversely affected” by the experience. Suffice it to say that Brooks’ overbearing behavior exacerbates tensions in the subject family, turning the filming process into a soul-crushing nightmare. As the heads of the subject family, Charles Grodin and Frances Lee McCain give immaculate performances, coming across as such pedestrian and uncomfortable individuals that they’re completely believable. More importantly, the ordinary-people vibe they generate is a sharp comedic counterpoint to Brooks’ showbiz-asshole narcissism. J.A. Preston steals all his scenes as Dr. Ted Cleary, one of the shrinks, because his utter disgust with Brooks gives viewers an outlet for their own frustrations with the protagonist’s insufferable behavior. The intentionally amateurish filmmaking technique is a drawback, and the long stretches of the movie that merely lay narrative pipe are dull, but the most outrageous scenes—like a cringe-inducing vignette of equine surgery and a series of hilarious conference calls with an unseen movie-studio executive—are inspired. A prescient meditation on the genre we later came to know and loathe as “reality TV,” Real Life is also noteworthy as the first major statement from one of comedy’s most intelligent voices.
Real Life: GROOVY