Directed by Rob Reiner (When Harry Met Sally, This is Spinal Tap, The Princess Bride), Albert Brooks: Defending My Life is quite simply the best kind of celebrity biographical documentary there is, because it’s made by someone who has known the subject since high school. Yes, there is such a thing as being too close to your subject, but Reiner is too much of a pro to let that get in the way of telling a great story about one of the true originals in stand-up comedy, filmmaking, and acting. Since the late 1960s, Brooks has been a guiding light in American comedy with, among other accomplishments, dozens of talk show appearances in which he quite frequently came up with the material minutes before going on stage (to be fair, some of his routines were very much rehearsed). He was one of the most intelligent performers doing some of the most absurd and outright silly bits that showcased how quick he was on his feet and how he viewed show business as something ridiculous.
Taking a fairly straightforward approach to going through Brooks’ life (his father was also a comedic actor, his mother a talented singer who gave up her career to take care of their kids), the doc moves from his talk show days to the fascinating series of short films he made for Saturday Night Live, and then takes us though his seven iconic movies, including Real Life, Modern Romance, Lost in America, and Defending Your Life. If I’m not mistaken, Reiner never sits Brooks down for a talking-head interview; instead, the two are sitting in a booth at an otherwise empty restaurant just going over things, leaving the more formal interviews for a who’s who of comedy legends to sing Brooks’ praises. When David Letterman says he would have rather had Brooks’ career than his own, it almost takes your breath away. There are also interviews with his wife and grown children, and I’m not sure his family members shine a light on who Brooks really is any more than folks like Judd Apatow, James L. Brooks, Chris Rock, Larry David, Sarah Silverman, Conan O’Brien, Ben Stiller, Jonah Hill, Alana Haim, or even Brooks’ buddy Steven Spielberg.
The only part of Brooks’ story I wish Reiner had spent a few more minutes covering is his acting work in other people’s movies, such as Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News, his terrifying turn in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, or even his recurring voice work in The Simpsons or as Nemo’s dad in Pixar’s Finding Nemo. Reiner is smart to talk through with his subject his roots in comedy without trying to dissect what was so different about his work. Others certainly attempt to pick it apart and explain why something is funny, but is there anything less interesting than someone explaining why a joke or routine works? Reiner shows us the routines; we can easily see why it’s funny, even if we can’t define it. This movie could have been five times as long, and it wouldn’t be enough. And all I wanted to do after watching it was put together a Brooks film festival for myself. He’s an inspiration, a supportive force to up-and-coming talents, and a humble person to a fault, and Defending My Life captures all of that beautifully.
The film debuts on HBO on November 11 and will be available to stream on Max.
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