“Dear Mr. Brody” isn’t as formally daring as writer-director Keith Maitland’s documentary debut, “Tower,” but it nonetheless boasts plenty of nonfiction flourishes — most notably, dramatic recreations of some of the thousands of unopened letters that were sent to Michael Brody Jr. in 1970 after the 21-year-old promised that he’d give away $25 million to anyone and everyone who asked. Brody’s wild Warholian 15 minutes of fame are the nominal center of attention of this fascinating doc, which has gotten considerable documentary exposure in a pandemic year (it would have premiered at Tribeca’s 2020 edition, had that event not been canceled). Yet its most fascinating focus are those typed and handwritten correspondences, which allow for a poignant, multifaceted investigation of universal dreams, desires and heartbreaking struggles.
The heir to the Jelke margarine empire, Brody made headlines when — after marrying his wife Renee in whirlwind fashion, and chartering a 747 to return them home from their Hawaii honeymoon — he began making public pledges to donate his entire fortune. Brody claimed that his generosity sprang from a desire to ease mankind’s pain and bring peace and happiness to the world. His hippie-ish vow immediately attracted scores of journalists, as well as throngs of average citizens from all walks of life who crowded the lawn of his Scarsdale, N.Y. home and the stairwells of his Manhattan office. They also wrote him, making their case for why they deserved a piece of his vast pie.
Though “Dear Mr. Brody” frustratingly refuses to identify its talking-head interview subjects, those speakers — including Renee — ably help tell this tale alongside archival news clips from the era. In that footage, Brody is as an obviously unstable individual, and revelations about his despondent childhood and his fondness for PCP do much to explain his unhinged on-camera conduct. Viewed from the perspective of today, Brody comes across as not an entertaining peace-and-love pothead but a loose cannon with serious psychiatric problems, which consequently provides Maitland’s film with an underlying critique of a media, and society, more interested in itself than in this crying-out-for-help man.
Lasting only 10 days, Brody’s spotlight saga proves only part of this story. The real hook of “Dear Mr. Brody” is the treasure trove of unopened letters that were sent to the millionaire, and which Melissa Robyn Glassman discovered in the possession of her boss, film producer Edward R. Pressman, who had them because he spent time in the ’70s trying to produce a Hollywood feature based on Brody’s odyssey (potentially starring Richard Dreyfuss). Pressman’s movie project — as well as one attempted by Brody’s childhood friend Don Enright — didn’t materialize. The letters he kept from his research phase, however, turn out to be tailor-made for cinematic treatment, given that they’re rife with tales of hardship and ambition, suffering and resilience, egotism and selflessness.
Director Maitland has actors read these dispatches in scenes that imaginatively duplicate the writers’ circumstances, and he also finds a few of their real-life authors so they can revisit their missives for the first time in decades, thereby shining a light on the diversity of human need and misery. There’s plenty of greed in those dispatches, but also humor and altruism, and the film — paralleling Melissa’s mission to make her way through the tens of thousands of letters possessed by Pressman and Brody’s son Jamie — functions as a tribute to those ignored and unanswered voices, treating them with the respect they always deserved but were denied by Brody.
There’s a nagging sense throughout “Dear Mr. Brody” that Brody’s out-of-control stunt — which netted him a guest spot on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and a recording contract before ending in failure and tragedy — is too trivial to shoulder so many weighty thematic concerns. It’s good, then, that the proceedings never take themselves too seriously, making sure to include amusing anecdotes about Brody allegedly sharing a joint with Walter Cronkite, and loopier letters such as one in which a man requests funding for his revolutionary two-tiered cereal bowl.