Dear Mr. Brody is powerful in spurts and conceived of in fascinating terms, but Maitland struggles to reconcile his disparate threads into a cohesive whole.
Keith Maitland had something of a breakout in 2016 with Tower, a film about the 1966 University of Texas clocktower mass shooting, which utilized a blend of animation and live-action to conjure both the tense afternoon and the process of historical and personal reckoning inherent in such a traumatic, collective event. His follow-up, Dear Mr. Brody, opts for something more muddled, a documentary about both an individual and the people who he inspired, both directly and tangentially, and consequently runs into trouble attempting to reconcile them into a cohesive whole.
The eponymous Dear Mr. Brody is Michael J. Brody, Jr., the millionaire heir to the Jelke margarine fortune who, over the course of about 10 days in January 1970, pledged to give away his $25 million inheritance to literally anybody who asked by letter. The result was a whirlwind media tour involving a record deal, possible movie rights, and constant reportage and public hounding as Brody made more outlandish promises — that he had ten billion dollars, that he could end the war in Vietnam — before his checks began to bounce and he suffered a drug-related breakdown, eventually dying by suicide a few years later.
This story is told by numerous people in Brody’s orbit: his widow, the son of his business partner, film producer (of Badlands and Phantom of the Paradise) Edward Pressman, who possesses thousands of the letters that were sent to Brody, and his “bodyguard,” among others. But this only forms about two-thirds of the film — including the array of archival footage and Flower Power animation related to Brody himself. The rest is dedicated to those who wrote to him, as facilitated by a researcher who has now opened over 10,000 of the unopened letters that Brody never bothered to get around to, sometimes interviewing the writer to have them speak the words that they wrote fifty years ago.
Both premises, especially the latter, carry a great deal of promise, but Dear Mr. Brody opts for a structure that appears to needlessly attempt to narrativize them, and interweaves them in a way that feels unilluminating, though the power of individual sequences is still maintained. Chief among the problems is an apparent attempt to preserve an investigatory, almost mystery-driven format, saving revelations like the fact that most of the letters were unopened, that Brody was heavily influenced by PCP, and that he likely had only $1.2 million at any one time to drop at key junctures. While attempting to ascribe standards of ethical storytelling to documentaries is a fraught, complicated subject, it comes across as needlessly obfuscatory when placed alongside scenes of total emotional commitment that deal with the letters and supplicants themselves.
These moments, far from the de rigeur blank backdrops and multi-cam set-up of the more traditional talking heads, are presented either in a white void — to better show off the often colorful and decorative letters — or in spaces familiar to the writers, engendering a better sense of intimacy that allows them to explore what this moment means to them and their own histories. A few sequences additionally appear to feature actors reading the letters and playing some of the writers when they were young, either filmed on film or hazily emulated to create a slipperiness of fact and fiction not present elsewhere in the film. Such potential for personal, deeply felt revelation — the most moving scene in the film unexpectedly invokes a prior letter-writer to create a potent familial bond — is only fitfully applied, and it makes the story of this troubled millionaire — perhaps a con artist, a possibility implied early but never really invoked again — seem all the smaller. The end credits roll over footage of people opening letters and reading them to each other, an ultimately more compelling subject that ought to have been its own film, instead of awkwardly grafted on to a merely decent one.
You can currently catch Keith Maitland’s Dear Mr. Brody in theaters or streaming on Discovery+ beginning on April 28.