Sunday, February 27, 2011

Underrated Movie #108: Real Life


Title: Real Life
Year: 1978
Director: Albert Brooks
Writers: Albert Brooks, Monica Johnson and Harry Shearer
Stars: Albert Brooks, Charles Grodin, Frances Lee McCain


The Story: Brooks plays a megalomaniacal version of himself as a comedian/filmmaker making an unprecedented documentary by moving into the house of a typical American family for a year and recording everything they do (on something called “digital video”). When the family doesn’t turn out to be interesting enough, Brooks begins interfering in their lives more and more, driving everybody insane, especially himself.

How it Came to be Underrated: Brooks was way ahead of his time in terms of his post-modern self-awareness and his comedy of awkwardness, not to mention his satire of reality TV. Still, I don’t know why this isn’t well-known as one of the great ground-breaking comedies of the ‘70s.

Why It’s Great:
  1. Brooks is satirizing the very first reality show “An American Family” which aired on PBS in 1973, profiling the Loud family of Santa Barbara, who were filmed in their home for a year. Over the course of the year, the family broke up, leading to endless debates about whether or not that would have happened if the cameras hadn’t been there. Brooks was actually a fan of the show, but he couldn’t resist wondering what would happened if a traditional Hollywood buffoon was in charge (predicting the future of reality TV). Brooks quickly resorts to tricks like giving the family a big-screen TV to cheer them up so that he can get happier footage (note the cameramen in their helmet-cams, always lurking in the background.)
  2. This is one of the most deadpan comedies ever made. Instead of constant laughter, you just get an increasingly nervous grin on your face for long periods at a time until suddenly the absurdity overwhelms you and start laughing out loud with little provocation. Then you quiet down and the process starts again.
  3. In drama it’s good if characters don’t really listen to each other, but in comedy it’s essential. They can’t hear each other and they can’t hear themselves. Brooks plays a basically decent man who nevertheless can’t open his mouth without puffing himself up in the most disingenuous possible way: “I’m an entertainer but, quite frankly, if I’d studied harder —or been graded more fairly— I would have been a doctor or a scientist.”
  4. I showed the VHS to everybody I could find back in the ‘90s but I’d never seen the DVD. I was very glad I watched it, because it includes the trailer (which has nothing to do with the movie) showing just how far ahead of its time the satire of this movie is. Somehow Brooks had his finger on the pulse of 2011 back in 1978. Watch this, it’s hilarious:

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Brooks’s next movie Modern Romance is just as good and even more forgotten. (And his third and fourth movies have already been covered here.) Another hilarious ‘70s satire that accurately predicted the rise of reality TV was Death Race 2000.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD with the trailer and a short, funny retrospective interview with Brooks from 2000.

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2 comments:

Steve Bird said...

Ha! And according to that trailer, it was produced by Penelope Spheeris, back in her anti-establishment punk rock days.

Matt Bird said...

Yeah! I had totally forgotten that Spheeris and Shearer were involved in this movie, but it does have parts of their DNA.