Film Reviews

Directing his life

Ever since his first film, 1979's Real Life, Albert Brooks has occupied his own little niche in American cinema. While his old buddy Rob Reiner quickly moved from the small, quirky, and wonderful This Is Spinal Tap to slick mainstream films, the 49-year-old Brooks (n. Albert Einstein) has released a film every four or five years--each dealing hilariously with some very basic, universal life issue, each starring Brooks himself in one variation or another of a man obsessed.

Where the insanity of Real Life derives from the protagonist's ruthless show-biz-career obsessions, Modern Romance chronicles a similar character's romantic obsession. Lost in America is allegedly a quest for the real America, but the characters never get very far; even at the end, they probably don't realize that they are as much a part of the real America as the Grand Canyon...and much shallower. Defending Your Life is Brooks' vision of the afterlife as another government bureaucracy, albeit one involving higher stakes.

Now, with Mother, Brooks casts himself as a writer who, after the failure of yet another relationship, decides to move back in with his mom (Debbie Reynolds) to get at the core of his problems. Of all the fundamental themes Brooks has worked with, Momism is probably the edgiest.

Andy Klein: There's this Oedipal undercurrent in Mother...well, actually, it's not an undercurrent. It's absolutely explicit, which is good because, kept suppressed, it would have been really creepy.

Albert Brooks: It's amazing how infrequently the subject's been done. I was shocked. I mean, I was shocked I could get the title Mother. That was still available in that MPAA title bank. And, when they do tackle it, it's always done in a silly way--like Stop or My Mother Will Shoot. Those mothers aren't anybody's mothers...You can't sit in the dark and go, "Oh, my God! My mother did that!" Unless you're, like, John Dillinger.

Is your own mom still with us?
Yes, she is. Thank goodness! She's in her 80s...early.
Has she seen the film?

Oh, yes, she saw it. My mother's funny: She uses my other films to tell me how much she likes this one. She said, "Y'know, honey, this is going to be the big one. 'Cause in this one you don't have to die...or drop out..." I said, "I understand."

But she didn't take any of it personally?
No, the first time she saw it, she actually said to me, "You know, I think one or two lines I recognize from us." And I said, "One or two lines? Do you think you can operate call waiting?"

The early scene that killed me was the food scene...the ancient sherbet...
That produces the greatest kind of laughter you can get. You know: "Oh, my God, I've seen that my whole life. Now it's on a movie screen." I love that. I love to see that. I had never seen that image before, but it's been with us forever. If you had a mother, you have that image. At home, we had Neapolitan ice cream that had no color. Those three colors had dissolved into one. I'd say, "Show me where the strawberry ends, and I'll eat it."

You grew up in Beverly Hills? And hung with that now-famous crowd from Beverly Hills High?

Yes, I was in with that crowd of people--the Dreyfuss-Reiner group.
Did Carl Reiner actually curse you with the title The Funniest Man Alive?
Once, when Johnny Carson asked him who the funniest person he ever met was, he said, "A 12-year-old kid named Albert Einstein." That was a quote that sort of stayed in my biography forever. I think just the fact that he mentioned a kid was a big deal. And then, you know, having a name like that...

Did the quote cause you great anxiety?
Well, I must tell you something. The best advantage about having my name, until I changed it, was that it prepared me for all that stuff. I mean, I had this moniker of the world's most famous scientist when I was 4. "That's really his name?"--I didn't even know what people meant. Why are they asking that?

Was that a conscious joke on your parents' part?
You know, I never got a straight answer. My dad always said, "Ask your mom." My mom always said, "Ask your dad."

You got to TV pretty quickly, including some sitcoms.
One Love American Style and some Odd Couples.
You had more hair...bigger hair.
Yeah, right. Same person, bigger hair.
Then you did those films for Saturday Night Live?

I had been doing tons of Carson, so NBC came to me in the fall of 1974 and said, "Would you like your own show on Saturday night?" They were offering me that time slot. I had just finished being a comedian. I had done the road for six years; I wasn't getting any acting; I wasn't getting what I did this whole thing for. So I passed on it. I realized that if I did that, that would be it. That's who I'd be.

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Andy Klein

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