Saturday, May 18, 2024

Rob Reiner’s “Albert Brooks: Defending My Life” Is the Film We Need Right now


Things are so grim in the world right now, we need a laugh, and some heart.

That’s what we get from Rob Reiner’s “Albert Brooks: Defending My Life,” an absolute tonic of a non fiction film playing HBO and MAX.

Reiner and Brooks have been friends, as they say, for almost 60 years. They met in high school, along with Richard Dreyfus and the kids of other stars. Their warmth and love for each other is palpable, with Reiner may unwittingly recreating the famous friendship his father, Carl Reiner, had with Mel Brooks.

The shared history of these two gifted filmmakers and comic actors makes it easy for them to take a walk down memory lane examining Brooks’s career. He was indeed born Albert Einstein by his father, a TV comedian in the 1950s, and changed his name (although for some reason. Reiner doesn’t say Albert was inspired by Mel Brooks and took his name). There’s a lot of examination of Albert’s family. One of his brothers speaks on camera, but again, a little oddly, there is no mention of their now deceased brother, Bob, aka Super Dave, and Funkhauser from “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Otherwise, “Defending My Life” is what they should play one day before Brooks gets an AFI or Academy Governors Award. He has no scandals, just lots of creativity as builds his career — coincidentally thanks to Carl Reiner, who gives him a shout out on TV age 16. Brooks takes off as a smart, edgy comedian on his own, and develops such a following that in 1974 Lorne Michaels asks him to host a weekly comedy show on Saturday nights. Brooks declines, recommends Michaels use revolving hosts, but Brooks will make videos for the show. Thus, “Saturday Night Live” is born.

There are many friends and fans who discuss Brooks’s career in the Reiner film including Steven Spielberg, Larry David, Sarah Silverman, James L. Brooks (no relation), Ben Stiller, and — I couldn’t figure this out — Brian Williams. Spielberg calls following Albert around with a camera, talking to people on the street a la Borat. Brooks discusses Albert’s famous turn in his “Broadcast News.”

All the other movies are checked off including my favorite, “Lost in America” (where is Julie Hagerty?), “Real Life,” “Modern Romance,” “Defending Your Life,” “Mother,” and the ill advised “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World.” We meet Albert’s wife and kids, a late in life experience, and get the passing information that he dated a young Linda Ronstadt. I kind of yearned for a Carrie Fisher-type pointer lesson of how all these cool people knew each other, but that’s not what Reiner wants. This is “My Dinner with Andre,” with punchlines.

In the end, the movie is just about these two Sunshine Boys giving the flavor of their lives in Hollywood being honorable, sane, well-intentioned mensches and observers of the human condition — next generation Woody Allens — or to use a Yiddish expression, Haimishe. I only wish HBO had put this in theaters for a week so it could be considered for an Oscar. But it’s good enough for a Critics Choice TV award and maybe an Emmy next fall.


Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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