In his directorial debut, Albert Brooks (The Muse, Mother) brings his special brand of madness to the screen in “Real Life.” A precursor to the reality based TV shows which have become part of America’s pop culture, Brooks’ film presents a hilarious account of what happens to a typical American family when a group of filmmakers moves in with them to record “real life.” Brooks heads up the crew that invades the Phoenix household of Charles Grodin, Frances Lee McCain and their children. The results are disastrous…and hysterically funny.
Real Life 8.5
“The audience doesn’t want reality.”
My first exposure to “reality” TV was in the mid-’90s, with MTV’s ‘The Real World’ series. I saw the 1997 and 1998 seasons, and not necessarily in their entirety, but I was completely sucked in by the voyeuristic aspect of it; I enjoyed seeing what these supposedly “regular” people were up to and what they’d do next. It was like real-life drama and, as someone who is fascinated with human behaviour, I thought that it was the ultimate entertainment.
Still, a part of me knew that it wasn’t actually real. I knew from the onset that the people were hand-picked to create a certain dynamic, that we only saw selected bits of their everyday lives together (i.e. not the “boring” parts) and that, by virtue of constantly being in the spotlight, the behaviour of these young people was influenced in ways it normally wouldn’t. In short, I knew that this was a show, not a documentary.
And this is why I’m such a fan of Albert Brooks’ ‘Real Life’. His film satirizes the concept behind the television show ‘An American Family’, which was aired on PBS some 5-6 years earlier and which documented the everyday life of a specific family. It was controversial not only because of the way the family was portrayed, which was all due to editorial choices, but also because of the intrusive nature of having camera crews around all the time, thereby affecting their subjects.
Brooks also recognized these failings and decided to send them up in the picture: not only do we witness just how quickly the family’s behaviour adapts for the ever-gazing lens, worried about the viewers’ impression of them, but we see how the filmmaker himself (played by Brooks with knowing derision and self-deprecation ) might not even understand his own impact, being focused more on the quality of the entertainment than the accuracy of the science – despite his claims to the contrary.
I love how Brooks often portrays himself as a narcissistic, self-obsessed individual – going so far as lending his own name to these characters, transforming them into mock facsimiles of the man he is. In reality, he uses himself as a vessel to comment on the “every man”, and/or on people with similar social and/or professional positions. I sometimes wonder just how much of his own personality he injects in these alter-egos; it’s all such a blur that he could very well be playing himself.
But, not only do I hope it’s not so, I highly doubt it: after all, he usually portrays himself as a somewhat douche-y person, as someone who might be difficult to like and is mostly funny because of his foibles. Surely Brooks wouldn’t use his veritable personality for target-practice – he would have to recognize his own weaknesses and desire to highlight them instead of working on them, which is a ridiculous notion to say the least. While there may be shades of himself in the on-screen characters that he portrays, I suspect that he is slightly more likeable in person.
In ‘Real Life’, however, “Albert Brooks” is as grating as he is eager, more pretentious than he is inspiring, and as emotionally-needy as he appears to be self-assured. This means that he ends up directly affecting the family with his decisions and antics; he’s a man with an agenda, and that agenda is his own benefit at all costs. Clearly, Brooks was commenting on the makers of reality shows more so than on himself, but in doing it this way, he provided himself with a shield against any criticism he might get for the portrayal – after all, he is playing the antagonist, not the naïve, but likeable, head of the family.
This is a role that was given to Charles Grodin, and he inhabits the character admirably well. While it doesn’t look like an actual documentary, per se, the actors provide relatively naturalistic performances – one often gets the impression that this is in fact an unscripted show. Helping things is the fact that we see the cameramen floating around from time to time, zipping through the screen to get into the next position as the family members move about. All of this provides the framework of a reality TV show suitably enough that one can forgive the more traditional elements of the film.
Another thing that helped set the tone was an introduction by “Albert Brooks”, explaining the concept of his project and showing the screening process that was used in finding the right family. It also familiarized us with the “state of the art” technology involved in the filming of the show: heat sensor-activated, wall-mounted cameras and digital cameras that are mounted on the cameramen’s heads and shoulders (making them look like robots in the process. All the pseudo-science in ‘Real Life’ looks really dorky three decades later, but it surely must have been awe-inspiring science-fiction at the time.
Science-fiction aside, given how enamoured our society has become with “reality” TV and how much power the media has in shaping the way we see ourselves, ‘Real Life’ feels quite real to me – it was meant as satire at the time, perhaps even as a word of caution, but it couldn’t possibly be more true-to-life now. It may not be perfection itself, but this is a picture with more layers and laughs than the average film – so, in my mind, it’s a massive success. ‘Real Life’ is also Albert Brooks at his finest, both as writer and performer; it was the beginning of a promising filmmaking career that saw many more gems over the years.
Post scriptum: I just saw the trailer for the first time (having upgraded my VHS copy to DVD) and it is phenomenal. It gave me the same feeling of excitement that I had when I first watched ‘Real Life’. It suitably shows nothing from the film, but is instead a talking point by the director to incite people to come see it in cinemas – just as they used to do in the old days. It’s ridiculous, silly and loads of fun.
See it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6KtAzt9LGsI