Long before MTV's The Real World made jerks like you and me into media sensations, writer/director Albert Brooks directed this little film about that very phenomenon. Read Judge Harold Gervais' analysis of this little-known gem.
Before "Survivor" and before "The Real World," Writer/Director Albert Brooks came up with Real Life. This was Brooks' first film and to its credit, the movie still holds up remarkably well today. Real Life is a Paramount disc so by this point most of those reading know what that means: good picture, decent sound, little in the way of extras, and one of the more expensive discs on the market. Isn't free enterprise wonderful?
Facts of the Case
Writer/director Albert Brooks (Lost in America, Mother) stars as actor/comedian Albert Brooks (Broadcast News, Out of Sight) as he journeys into the heart of suburbia to record a year in the life of a real American family.
Along with his advisors from the National Institute of Human Behavior, Brooks sets up shop filming Warren Yeager (Charles Grodin) and his family. Brooks and his unobtrusive cameras follow the family everywhere. From contentious dinner table conversation to trips with Yeager's wife Jeannette (Frances Lee McCain) to her gynecologist, Brooks is there to record every nuance and tick that makes up the nuclear family unit. The days roll on and tensions mount. Can any family live like this? Can Albert finish his movie and get the respect he craves? Will Albert have an affair with Jeannette? Does everyone think Albert's house looks as expensive as he thinks it does? Why is Albert wearing an expensive clown suit? The answer to these and many more questions are answered and simply dropped as Albert Brooks and crew go forth to discover what it really means live a Real Life.
Coming just three years after Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet predicted the entertainment invasion of network news with their prophetic 1976 film, Network, Albert Brooks' Real Life opened the door to reality based television. With the saturation of "real people" beamed/transmitted/streamed everyday into our homes via television and the Internet, it makes it somewhat difficult to realize just how unique this movie was when it first came out. To add to that, I was quite surprised to go back and watch Real Life and to see just how much Brooks and company got right. While the film plays them for laughs, the tensions shown in the Yeager family are the stuff of today's breathless ratings teasers pounding the airwaves as 15- and 30-second ad spots on all the major networks.
While it's more an out and out farce than the black comedy of Network, Real Life also poses some interesting questions, not the least of which is, is it possible for anyone to act "natural" while having their every move followed and documented by a camera? Brooks' conclusion would seem to say no; if you watched "Temptation Island" or "Survivor" the other night, well, you may feel differently.
While far from being his best work, Real Life does offer up a great preview of coming attractions of what we can find in Brooks' later films such as Mother and Defending Your Life. Like Woody Allen in a great many of his movies, Brooks generally seems to play a careful variation of himself. It is this "personality" that often acts as a guide to his world within the movie. The nervous, insecure, egotistical, arrogant and narcissist Brooks is very much on display here. It's a character we have come to know well in his films and it never ceases to amaze me how Brooks, and Allen as well, manage to find different shadings and levels within that character to keep it fresh as the years move on.
Another aspect Real Life touches on or looks ahead to is how celebrities and the famous are never happy with what they have achieved. Especially in the world of comedy, one only has to think of Bill Murray's wooden but dramatic turn in the remake of The Razor's Edge to see what Brooks is getting at in Real Life. By attempting to legitimize himself through his association with the National Institute of Human Behavior, Brooks, at least the one within the film, seems to crave what so many comedic talents have over the years: respect. He does not wish to be thought of merely as a comedian, but instead be taken seriously as an "artist." Thus the harder Brooks tries to make his film relevant and "real," the more things spin out of control, both in the Yeager household and within Brooks' mind. It is Brooks' ultimate decent into madness as his film is pulled out from under him and he attempts to save his project by trying to recreate the greatest ending to the greatest film ever made—think Gone With The Wind—that gives Real Life its final funny and slightly chilling coda. If you can't create, simply destroy and hope you get it all in the master shot.
In a movie full of highs and funny moments, it is really the screenplay of Brooks, his longtime writing companion Monica Johnson, and one of the funniest men in America, Harry Shearer (This is Spinal Tap, Call o' the Glen), that is one of the biggest stars of Real Life.
On a performance level it should already be understood that Brooks is Brooks. Accept him in the roles he plays within his movies and you pretty much accept the film. Real Life would, however, be lost if not for the presence of Charles Grodin (Dave, Midnight Run) as Warren Yeager. Before he became a mediocre talk show host, he was the true modern master of underplayed comedy and the slow burn. Here he is perfect as the loving and devoted husband who wishes only the best for his family, but ends up being star struck and wanting his 15 minutes of fame. To give a true example of the level of Grodin's craft one only has to see the sequence within his operating room as Yeager works on a prized horse that, it goes without saying, dies. That and the sequence afterwards where he tries to gets Brooks' promise to never show the footage is one of the funniest things in the movie and stands as vintage Grodin.
Also very good is Frances Lee McCain (True Crime, Patch Adams), as Warren Yeager's wife, Jeannette. Not the most well known face in the world, McCain gives the movie that sense of reality that Brooks was after. Her spiral from devoted wife to developing a crush on the moderately famous Brooks to once more standing with her family is another of the movie's many high points.
On the disc end, Paramount has given Real Life one of their customary anamorphic transfers that maintains the film's original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The transfer really is a mixed bag and stands as a good example of what many films from the era of the '70s look like today. The movie's colors are faded and look somewhat washed out. Flesh tones appear natural, and while the image has strong black levels that feature little in the way of breakup or shimmer, they also lack the strong shadow detail of today's best transfers. It should be noted that the source print from which this disc was struck was in fairly good shape, as there are very few instances of visible imperfections such as nicks and scratches. Not a bad video transfer in any way, shape or form, yet not a great one either.
Sound is of the 2.0 mono variety, and it is more than acceptable. Not the kind of movie where you expect a lot of directional sound effects, the key is the viewer's ability to clearly understand all the word play coming from the wonderful screenplay. On this count, the soundtrack delivers to a point. The dialogue is easy to make out, but there is a definite thinness to the audio proceedings. There are several instances of audible tape hiss that sometimes proved to be a little distracting. Like the video, the sound is a mixed bag of pleasures and pains that in the end gives the disc only average marks.
This is a Paramount disc, so of course the extra features are rather on the light side. The movie's theatrical trailer is included (not always a given from Paramount) and the disc also includes a 11-minute conversation with co-writer/star/director Albert Brooks looking back on the making of Real Life. While I applaud this feature's inclusion, it truly is much too brief. I very much wanted to hear from Brooks' other co-writers on their prospective, especially Shearer, who I consider to be one of America greatest and most underrated wits. It would have also been nice to get Grodin's take on the movie and what it predicted; alas, none of that is there.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Like the works of Woody Allen, Albert Brooks' films can be an acquired taste, although I defy anyone not to find Lost in America a laugh riot. You can call this review a "preaching to the choir" style of write-up. If you don't get Brooks' humor, this is probably not a best place to start.
The bulk of my problems with this disc are with Paramount. I think most avid DVD watchers would agree that MGM is by far the worst of all major studios releasing DVDs, but I find those released under the Paramount label to be the most frustrating. They have a great library of films, and most of what they put out has state-of-the-art video and sound (although as noted video and audio here leave quite a bit to be desired). Yet, most releases lack anything in the way of supplemental material. I will be the first person to admit that not every movie needs or deserves a commentary track or deleted footage, but in the case of a movie that was so ahead of its time like Real Life, something more than an 11-minute interview would have been nice. I also realize that quite a few filmmakers do not want any extra material on DVD releases of their films—thanks Mr. Allen and Mr. Lynch—yet Paramount takes this approach across the board with their catalogue titles. It is especially glaring when one looks at the work regularly turned in by studios like Columbia and Fox on their older titles. Then there is the price factor. Generally $5 dollars more expensive than anyone else, these bare-bones discs are simply not a good value. Come on, Paramount! Look around at the market place and see what the other companies are doing. Please improve your discs. We already want the movies…give them the features they deserve and make them worth the money you ask for them.
Real Life is a very funny movie that was decades ahead of its time, and as such it deserves to be seen at least once. Personally though, I have a hard time recommending this disc for purchase. While the video and audio are more than acceptable, they are far from outstanding, and the price charged by Paramount simply makes it that much more difficult. If Paramount's pricing structure were more in line with a New Line or MGM, purchase would be a vastly different story for me.
Those factors should certainly not stop anyone from giving it a rental though, and of course if you laugh until you fall on the floor, which personally I have never done before, then a purchase is certainly in order.
Albert Brooks and company are acquitted of seeing the future and quickly making fun of it.
Paramount is found guilty of overcharging for their product, and are ordered locked in a room, sentenced to watch endless reruns of "The Best of Erik Estrada and 'C.H.I.P.s'" until they change their tune.
That is all I have and this case is dismissed. That is all.
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