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Entries in Real Life [1979] (1)

Wednesday
May252011

Real Life (1979) Home Video Review

Do You Follow Me?

Albert Brooks's Real Life is creepy.  It tells the story of a filmmaker, also named Albert Brooks, whose crew takes over Phoenix, Arizona, for several months in order to document every waking moment of the average, suburban Yeager family.  Working with a prestigious research institute, he and his production team scoured America to find the perfect subjects--people so typical and unaffected that they wouldn't mind being followed by cameras or giving up their most intimate moments for an audience of millions to see. You might think nothing of this idea, given the wild popularity of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and 19 Kids and Counting (for the uninitiated, these are actual television shows).  But what if I told you that Real Life came out over thirty years ago?

The conceit is slightly different from what we know of today's "reality" craze: the Brooks character plans to release his film theatrically instead of turning it into a TV series.  But when the Yeager family agrees to take part in the project, they fall victim to the same nutty lack of authenticity that mars the genre today. Brooks rambles incessantly about the need for people to "just be [them]selves", but that's hard to do with four cameramen tracking every movement and the director stepping in to ask Mrs. Yeager (Frances Lee McCain) to switch to a smaller car as she attempts to leave her husband during a fight.

Worse yet are the "state of the art" head-gear cameras, which look like top-heavy replicas of 2001's space pods.  We frequently see weird pseudo-spacemen ducking out of frame or inching their way around doors in order to get the best coverage.  These miming Oompa-Loompas are a constant reminder of Real Life's silly un-reality.

Brooks's belief that nothing the cameras capture is unusable pours over into his own meta-commentary on how his movie is coming along.  We pull away from the Yeagers occasionally to watch him consult with Doctors Hill and Cleary (Matthew Tobin and J.A. Preston, respectively) on the effect the movie might have on his subjects as well as bounce story ideas and character arcs off of them.  The director's background as a comedian clashes with his sensibilities as a cinéma vérité observer; his advisors warn him (unsuccessfully) of the dangers of manipulating reality and presenting it as truth.

Unfazed, the auteur continues to tweak his project to the point where it's no longer about the family, but about his relationship with the family and their relationship with the world that will soon be their audience.  When the camera crew distracts Dr. Yeager (Charles Grodin) during a veterinary procedure--leading to the death of a prize racehorse--Brooks takes a sidebar and convinces his distraught performer that showing the botched operation won't necessarily harm his professional reputation.

Eventually, the Yeagers rebel against Brooks by being as boring and drama-free as possible.  This leads to trouble with the studio, who consider scrapping the project in favor of safer fare.  Brooks melts down, and so does Real Life.  The film transitions from consistent, sharp satire to a series of whining arguments and soliloquies; this dramatic tonal shift sort of works from a thematic perspective but not so much as entertainment.

Watching the movie today, I can appreciate what Brooks and co-writers Harry Shearer and Monica Mcgowan Johnson were trying to say about show-business, but that's largely because I'm a reality-TV junky and see this kind of thing every weeknight.  I have no idea how audiences reacted to Real Life in 1979, or how people today will find the movie if they aren't steeped in the minutiae of media culture.  I imagine a lot of confusion in both cases; to be honest, I was confused, too, by the Brooks character's climactic break from reality and his ultimate solution to making his film a blockbuster.  Perhaps that's the genius capper to the whole production: Turning everyday events into salacious train wrecks--but it doesn't quite play.

Unlike This is Spinal Tap (a film also co-written by and starring Shearer), which would invent the "mockumentary" genre a few years later, Real Life is a scripted movie about making a movie-like documentary.  Adding this layer of narrative structure was a mistake--at least in the way Brooks and company chose to execute it.  The over-the-top-media message gets muddled towards the end, and the movie becomes about a crazy director rather than a crazy new way of looking at the world.

Had Brooks stuck it out with the Yeagers, whose squabbling nastiness belies the all-American image they'd presented in the talent search, Real Life might have reached the creators' destination on its own. One of the reasons Spinal Tap was such a success, I think, is that director/co-writer Rob Reiner knew to get out of his subjects' way; I get that one of Brooks's aims was to play up the intrusiveness of a production crew at the breakfast table, but he could have done that within the confines of a straight documentary--without the added layer of bullshit.

Sorry, that was harsh.  In truth, it's the bullshit that makes the front end of Real Life extremely funny. But I was let down by the way the movie ate itself.  In the last twenty minutes, I lost a comedy classic right before my eyes, and was left with a mostly funny, imperfect curiosity.  Perhaps this is the area in which Brooks was most ahead of his time: Most reality shows start out strong, or at least amusing; but by mid-season they're reduced to sad, lost opportunities and wasted hours.