"Throw It in the Air and See Where It Lands"
James L. Brooks, the writer, pens things that James L. Brooks, the director, finds hard to bring to the screen. Brooks will tinker and hone, experiment and kibitz, noodge and futz, then re-think, re-edit, even re-shoot his movie to steer it more towards his original vision (which, in the process, probably changed, as well).
Polishing, always polishing.
Starting out in journalism, then moving to TV, where he helped to create "Mary Tyler Moore" (and its spin-offs, "Rhoda" and "Lou Grant") and "Taxi," Brooks garnered enough Emmy Awards to crack the sturdiest mantelpiece, then moved to films, first writing and co-producing Starting Over, then settling into the director's chair for a series of films that garnered critical acclaim and substantial box office. From his first film, he has garnered acclaim and awards, and if his films draw less attention than they have in the past, maybe it's because if you get too much quality...you might get bored with it after awhile.
Oh, yeah? Bring it on.
Terms of Endearment (1983) This is the good version of Steel Magnolias. A movie about independent free-thinking daughters and the clinging mothers they drive crazy features some unpleasant people and a great deal about cancer and yet, it still defied being box-office poison and made zillions of dollars. It went on to win the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Jack Nicholson) and Best Actress (Shirley MacLaine, although if there was any latitude Debra Winger should have been a co-winner). Based loosely on Larry McMurtry's novel, Brooks added Nicholson's character, as an aging lothario-astronaut, who is brought temporarily to Earth by MacLaine's Aurora Greenway, still imagining herself a rose in full blossom. The script is tart, funny, and not afraid to challenge an audience's perceptions of how lead characters should act. It feels real...like life, only much better written.
Broadcast News (1986) Brooks looks at the "new" TV journalism that started to tip into flash over substance and heat over illumination with this rom-dram-com about a triangle of news people with different styles. Everybody loves perky news producer Jane Craig (Holly Hunter), but who'll get her: Aaron (Albert Brooks) the smartly acerbic reporter with substance, or Tom (William Hurt), the dimly hunky anchor who skates on his looks? That Brooks ties the fates of Jane and The Truth together is risky but brilliant, and Broadcast News has both food for thought and the heart. It also catapulted Holly Hunter (in a brilliant performance)into the A-list after Raising Arizona, but everybody does a great job in this one—it certainly showcases how great Albert Brooks can be given proper material. Jack Nicholson has a cameo as a national news icon. The script is full of smart clever dialogue that is imminently quotable.*
And then, "The Simpsons" happened. Brooks hired Matt Groening to do interstitials for his "The Tracey Ullman Show" and the characters took off, spawning the longest-running animated show in television history. It created an empire for Fox, and a supervising responsibility for Brooks, who has shepherded the show throughout its run, directing the cast of talent for the inevitable The Simpsons Movie, which only came out in 2007.
I'll Do Anything (1994) I'm sure someday we'll see a restored version of this film,** which started off as a musical (starring Nick Nolte??) at a time when folks hated musicals. Brooks always tinkers with his film obsessively, but after bad previews, he savaged this film, taking out all traces of musical numbers, and filming new segments to bridge the gaps. The story of a self-obsessed actor, who suddenly finds himself in charge of the life and (oooh, bitter irony!) burgeoning acting career of his pint-sized daughter,*** the film is full of wit and and wisdom, but feels a bit rarefied. And losing the connective tent-poles of the songs hurts. Try as Brooks did to stitch it together, the film feels anemic and "not very there."
As Good As It Gets (1997) Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) is the worst person in the world. A writer (of romance novels) he leads a self-imposed cloistered existence: he's obsessive-compulsive, an hysterical germaphobe, and a complete jerk. He has his routine down, and everything else—including relationships of any kind outside service-work—is too messy to be bothered with.****
Well, life is messy. The only waitress who'll wait on him (Helen Hunt) he becomes attached to, paying for her son's treatment of asthma. Then when his gay neighbor (Greg Kinnear) is seriously injured in an assault, Melvin has to take care of they guy's dog. As with his unwillingness to step on cracks in the sidewalk, Melvin starts to take baby-steps to accomplish his goals and enter the world of humanity again. Cracks start to form in his own shell, as he bonds with the dog (everything, it seems, is helped with bacon), and begins to think altruistically...sort of. It's an unsettling kind of heart-warming story (almost veering into heart-burn), and quite messy in itself, but the players are note-perfect (Nicholson and Hunt won Oscars for Best Lead Performances)
Spanglish (2004) After avoiding this one for years due to its bad word-of-mouth, I finally saw it and fell in love with it. Shows ya what the experts know. Successful chef John Clasky (Adam Sandler, remarkably restrained and warm) is having panic attacks with a new restaurant he's opening, his wife (Téa Leoni, remarkably off-putting, a brave performance) is an neurotic control freak, and the only semblance of normalcy in their lives is the insertion of an immigrant housekeeper (the enchanting Paz Vega) and her precocious daughter who acts as interpreter. Again, Brooks takes a situation with high-end professionals and makes them down to Earth with foibles and flaws, but the emphasis here is on responsibility and dedication of duty to the important matters of life. There are the inevitable culture clashes and meldings that put strains on all relationships, but Brooks keeps it entertaining while not ignoring the grit that makes things...interesting. Love this movie.
Brooks' new film How Do You Know? opens today. Starring Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson and (of course) Jack Nicholson, it tells the story of two professional ballplayers, who must put away childish things and grow up to be adults...like Paul Rudd's investment banker under indictment. As with a lot of rom-com's the issue will be: will Reese choose Owen or Paul, and how will she know and when will she know it? My suspicion is the issue will be left up in the air.
* My favorite: After staff cut-backs at the network, an exec puts on his "bad news" face to ask if there's anything he can do for a laid-off employee. The old veteran newsie, box-in-hand, pauses and says: "Well...you could die soon."
** Yeah, but then, that would depend on the idiosyncratic Prince, who wrote the songs, to give permission to allow that to happen. Brooks made a documentary about the making and unmaking of this film, but due to the same Prince-ly issue, it has never been released.
*** The situation was brilliantly but succinctly put in my real life by an actor-friend who commented on the life-transforming birth of his daughter: "I thought I was President of the United States. Now, I realize I'm just the Secret Service."
**** Of COURSE, he writes romance novels! He has no reality to dim the fantasy!