Thursday, May 1, 2014

Now I've Seen Everything Dept.: James L. Brooks

"Throw It in the Air and See Where It Lands"

James Lawrence 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 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, it features some unpleasant people in unpleasant circumstances and a great deal about cancer and yet, it still defied that formula for box-office poison and made zillions of dollars, with good reason. Smart, funny, poignant to the point of producing tears, and even tough, 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 in the Academy rules, Debra Winger should have been a co-winner).  Based loosely on Larry McMurtry's very good novel, Brooks took the Houston locale 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 life, only much better written. Terms of Endearment is a "chick" film that any sex can enjoy.

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 who Jane respects (even though he's something of a schlemazzle, or Tom (William Hurt), the dimly hunky anchor who skates on his looks and provokes lust in Jane? The answer is that one must follow one's heart, however painful that may be. 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 soul. 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 production of "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 and stayed away from them in droves. 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 considerable 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 really hurts the film. Try as Brooks did to stitch it together, the film feels anemic and "not very there," a carcass of a film. The songs, by the way, were contributed by Carole King, Jackson Brown, Prince and Sinéad O'Connor and were staged with choreography by Twyla Tharp. Brooks has mentioned that he'd like to do a "Director's Cut" putting the numbers back in, but it has never come to fruition.

As Good As It Gets (1997) Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) is absolutely 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 and total 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, as Brooks displays again and again, life is messy. The only waitress who'll wait on him (Helen Hunthe 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 over a new restaurant he's opening, his wife (Téa Leoni, remarkably off-putting in a brave performance) is a 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.*****

How Do You Know (2010) This one probably should have had the title "Trouble with the Curve" (instead of the Clint Eastwood-Amy Adams movie). It a bit early for Brooks to be repeating himself with the "Who is she going to end up with?" formula from Broadcast News, but that's what How Do You Know most resembles, but without the substantial background of the earlier film. Reese Witherspoon plays a baseballer who is drummed out of the league, while her boyfriend (Owen Wilson) still has a successful career. Meanwhile, Paul Rudd plays an executive who is fired from his father's (Jack Nicholsoncompany due to a federal investigation and is at a loss, professionally and in his love life. Witherspoon and Rudd date, but the results are a disaster. Still, they're drawn to each other in a weird "if we're falling off a cliff, maybe it'd be better to hold hands" way. It feels forced, as with any comparison the movie tries to make between the baseball and corporate milieus, and both worlds are rather sketchily drawn to have any real depth of meaning. It's trying to say something about the trials and tribulations of transitioning between first and second acts in life (post-Wall Street crash) but falls prey to the same problem, dramatically.  Not a very successful film, and it seems to be an issue with the script than with the execution.

Shhhh!  Ba-da-dum-da-dumdum-dah-dumdum

* 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: " 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!

***** And, for some reason, one of the most memorable things about Spanglish about "The Ultimate Sandwich" that Clasky makes at one point.  Here's the remarkable recipe.

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