When I heard Rob Reiner was planning to direct a documentary on a true comic icon and genius named Albert Brooks, I thought “Now this will be good!” Reiner (When Harry Met Sally, A Few Good Men, Stand By Me, This Is Spinal Tap, etc., etc.) is not only a smart and talented filmmaker in his own right, but also a longtime friend of Brooks, with whom he went to high school and even co-starred with him in drama department productions. I am happy to report this HBO Original documentary, Albert Brooks: Defending My Life, premiering Saturday night and then streaming on Max, not only more than met my high expectations but exceeded them.
Set in a plush dark red restaurant booth, the film is anchored simply by a conversation between Reiner and Brooks. The visual is almost identical to the opening scene of Brooks’ 1981 Modern Romance, where he and his girlfriend are breaking up, but here it is more akin to My Dinner With Andre where two old pals engage us with an examination of the life and career of one of them, in this case Brooks. The end result is sheer cinematic bliss.
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Unlike the aforementioned Andre, there is so much more than just conversation as Reiner guides Brooks though an honest, hilarious, revealing, sometimes touching and always enlightening journey through his remarkable story, with bountiful clips every step of the way. It manages to be quite comprehensive and really doesn’t leave much out, generously filled with hysterical clips of his endless early TV appearances on just about every show — most particularly with Johnny Carson and several of his 30-or-so routines he brought to The Tonight Show. Every one of his seven feature films he directed also gets an examination in detail, plus his various roles as an actor including the memorable Oscar-nominated supporting turn in Broadcast News, his harrowing villain opposite Ryan Gosling in Drive and sweet voiceover work as Marlin in Finding Dory.
There is also some wonderful talk about his life with his parents, who were both in showbiz, particularly his relationship with his dad, Harry Einstein, a comedian himself who died at age 54 in 1958 literally after performing a smash routine at a Friars Club roast of Lucy and Desi. (And yes, his parents actually named him Albert Einstein.) There is also discussion of his mother, a frustrated performer who never quite gave her son the career approval he was looking for after his various TV spots. “Well what did Johnny think?”, she would ask.
Reiner’s film is worth the price of admission just as a long overdue analysis of what made Brooks so unique and even daring (he rarely tried out bits before going for broke and doing them on national television) as a stand-up comedian, though that term does him no justice. Although he put out several comedy albums, this film proves there is a real need for a DVD release of just his many routines alone. Reiner also gets countless, and intriguing, observations from a long list of colleagues and admirers of Brooks including a boatload of comedians like Chris Rock, Ben Stiller, Sarah Silverman, David Letterman, Larry David, Judd Apatow, Tiffany Haddish, Conan O’Brien, Jon Stewart and Wanda Sykes. Steven Spielberg is interviewed and talks about how he just used to follow Brooks around town with a camera filming various interactions Albert had with people along the way. News anchor Brian Williams and Neil deGrasse Tyson also turn up with unexpected observations, as does James L. Brooks who directed him in Broadcast News and even acted for him in a very funny bit in Modern Romance. Jonah Hill talks about his clear worship of the man (a couple of years ago I sat behind Hill at a special screening of Defending Your Life that he arranged and hosted).
There are plenty of stories about the making of his films including his surprise when, after meeting Meryl Streep at a party, she would soon agree to star opposite him in that aforementioned masterpiece Defending Your Life. There is also talk about other Brooks classics including Real Life, Lost In America and The Muse. Sharon Stone is interviewed by Reiner regarding the latter and signed up without even seeing a script. His film Mother, based somewhat on his own family dynamic, starred Debbie Reynolds and he talks about its inspiration.
His most recent work as a director and star, 2005’s Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, provides plenty of fodder for the now 76-year-old Brooks to unload on working with studios who sometimes just don’t “get it,” and in this case insisted he change the title to just “Looking For Comedy” — something that simply defeats the whole purpose of his film.
Reiner has packed this 88-minute film wall to wall with all things Albert Brooks, and the biggest takeaway for me is that I wanted more. I wanted more of this terrific documentary, but most urgently I want more of Brooks. Please give this guy the money to make some more movies of his own. He doesn’t have to defend anything. The proof of a unique and once-in-a-lifetime brilliant talent is all here. For Albert Brooks fans, this is nirvana.
Producers are Reiner, Michelle Reiner and Matthew George. The documentary had its world premiere in October at AFI Fest.
Title: Albert Brooks: Defending My Life
Release date: November 11, 2024 8pm ET/PT (HBO and Max)
Director: Rob Reiner
Cast: Albert Brooks, Rob Reiner, various interviewees
Running time: 1 hr 28 min
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