One critic's take on Brooks' Americana

For two decades now, the writing team of Albert Brooks and Monica Johnson has hewed out a niche that is unique in American film. Collaborating on a series of comedies, directed by and starring Brooks, they have taken on a series of “big” topics without succumbing to the sort of self-important seriousness that, to cite the most obvious example, has marred the later Woody Allen films for many viewers.

Brooks has long been a favorite with critics, but his films, while relatively inexpensive and generally profitable, have never had the kind of blockbuster appeal that spawns imitators. (It’s a safe bet that more people saw his Os-car-nominated performance in “Broadcast News” than have seen all his own films put together.)

But, despite his better known onscreen appearances (which also include “Taxi Driver” and “Private Benjamin”), it is his string of character-based “issue” comedies — all but one written together with Johnson — that forms the heart of his work.

For the record, Brooks and Johnson also did a rewrite on Andrew Bergman’s long-dormant screenplay for “The Scout” (1994), in which Brooks starred. Johnson worked on “Jekyll and Hyde … Together Again” (1982) and the underrated 1979 “Americathon,” one of the funniest post-“Animal House”/”Groove Tube” sketch-oriented satires. And, in the late ’80s, the duo took a break while Brooks wrote the screenplay for “Defending Your Life” (1991) on his own.

But their most important work, separately or together, can be found in four films: “Real Life” (1979, co-written with Harry Shearer), “Modern Romance” (1981), “Lost in America” (1985), and “Mother” (1996).

Brooks and Johnson have moved from one modern American obsession to the next. These four films take a comic look at (respectively) fame, love, career and mom; it might be fair to suggest that they focus in specific on the as-pects of those concerns most peculiar to boomers.

Since the duo are plugged into post-counterculture America, it’s surprising how little their work resembles come-dies by other filmmakers of their age group. If anything, they seem to draw more from writers of the immediately preceding generation. But even these influences are few: One of the signs of their uniqueness is how difficult it is to ferret out any clear precursors.

Woody Allen is the first name that always comes up, since both he and Brooks tend to cast themselves as neurotic, self-absorbed, urban artist/intellectuals. But the similarities are mostly on the surface.

The Brooks/Johnson screenplays are generally much more rigorously structured than Allen’s, although the struc-ture is an unusual and sometimes frustrating one (see below). Secondly, Brooks has a much tougher attitude toward the characters he plays than Allen does. Most of the time, Allen seems to be asking the audience for approval, pleading for understanding and forgiveness; Brooks, on the other hand, is relentless in exposing his characters’ most irritating traits. He may be fond of these guys, but he never covers up their flaws or engages in special plead-ing.

This attitude owes far more to the early films of (individually) Mike Nichols and Elaine May. Nichols’ “The Graduate” is the closest that 1960s cinema came to a Brooks/Johnson film; and May’s “The Heartbreak Kid” is the early ’70s equivalent. Still, there are differences: “The Graduate” is much more conventionally structured, and “Heartbreak Kid’s” ruthlessness toward its characters goes beyond honesty to outright contempt.

There really is nobody else applying the same brutally revealing, yet sympathetic, sensibility to the omnipresent is-sues of contempo American angst. Nor is there anybody else who takes the particular aesthetic risks that mark the Brooks/Johnson collaborations: Not only do these scripts avoid fully resolved endings, but they employ story structures that are likely to confound or annoy viewers first time through.

That is, even though they adhere to a conventional three-act structure, the plots set up time expectations that are then completely frustrated. In “Real Life” and “Lost in America,” the first act repeatedly suggests what the course of the story will cover: in the first case, a span of a year; in the second, a trip across America. But the deranged media project in “Real Life” aborts within two months; the self-styled dropouts in “Lost” spend all but the last few minutes getting no further from California than Arizona.

This derailing of the films’ story momentum can rankle audience members who are used to the conventions of Hollywood filmmaking. It’s a bit like “Jaws,” if the shark had died of natural causes before the heroes ever took off in the boat, or “Independence Day,” with the aliens going “What the heck! Earth’s not really worth it,” before Bill Pullman suits up in flyboy gear.

Of course, it’s also the only appropriate strategy for the projects the duo is attracted to — stories of unrealistic dreams and inevitably lowered expectations. In all four, Brooks and Johnson give us the mere appearance of a resolution, only to undercut it in either the final scenes or in a superimposed crawl.

Even the apparently “happy ending” of “Mother” isn’t totally pat: Brooks’ character has found peace by appreciating his mother as a failure, by bringing her down to his level. It may just be a gag line, but it’s a telling one.

Given the extent of their association, it’s hard to separate who brings what to the partnership. It’s possible to look at the one film Johnson didn’t collaborate on to see what’s missing; “Defending Your Life” is different from its four companions in at least one crucial way — the ending is purely happy, without any obvious irony.

That could be proof that Johnson brings a slightly harder edge to their work together … or that she keeps Brooks honest. But there are other factors that may well have affected the film’s ending — including the constraints of a budget that exceeded all of Brooks’ earlier films combined.

While such speculation is of academic interest, it’s ultimately unimportant. What is important is the hilarious, in-sightful body of work the pairing has produced — and the sincere hope that they continue to turn out scripts of the same caliber.

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