Seemingly the only point of Albert Brooks: Defending My Life is to state in plain English that Albert Brooks is a great comedian and a great artist. Despite the title — an inevitable nod to Brooks’ film Defending Your Life, where his character is sent to a bureaucratic afterlife and given a lawyer to argue for his life’s value — this documentary has little interest in building a case; it takes his genius as a given. It’s a fair argument, even a cause this critic is happy to campaign for, but probably not one that many viewers need to hear echoed back to them.
The seven feature films Brooks wrote and directed were always committed and confrontational, none more so than Modern Romance, which laid romantic jealousy bare and in long form, leaving the audience stranded amongst its embarrassments, desperations, and cruelties until they had no choice but to accept the resonances with their own love lives. Unsurprisingly, Brooks struggled to get any of his films made, even if he managed the feat for a brief period, when the American film industry was more diverse and robust. But it’s been 20 years since the provocative and somewhat self-sabotaging Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, and a follow-up is far from sight.
But Defending My Life glides across this essential fact of Brooks’ career, wrapping up its brief allusions with a heartwarming sentiment: he has never seen any path except the tumultuous one he’s taken. Much in contrast to the man’s work, anything too negative or uncomfortable is left in soft focus here. It might ruin the gentle and homey vibe of the one-on-one interview between Brooks and his adoring school friend — and this film’s director — Rob Reiner, set in a cozy fake restaurant with no other diners and one waiter who always seemed to be setting the same table. Brooks’ life stories are solidified and confident, as if he’s had more chances to tell them than one imagines he really has, each anecdote neat and parabolic, and punctuated by twinkly, sentimental music. But at its best, Defending My Life is like being invited to the warm reunion of two old friends, softened by the years and lost loved ones, touched and amused anew by the stories they’ve heard countless times before.
This conversation is only briefly interrupted by talking heads, a kindness next to their dull, drowning omnipresence in most modern documentaries. Famous faces from Steven Spielberg to Conan O’Brien to Alana Haim (amongst others) talk in small fragments of either grandiose acclaim — Jon Stewart calls Brooks the first alt comic — or total banality — Jonah Hill laughs to himself, impressed at his remembrance of a certain famous anecdote. But, of course, we’d rather hear it from the people who were there, and so we do. These are just voices of validation, a collection of the most respected people Reiner could find, as much for Albert’s sake as our own.
But that’s okay, as the film is justified almost entirely on the strength of the clips of Brooks’ early Late Night stand-up. His bits are so bold and borderline stupid in their absurdist conception that they become entirely brilliant: a mime who can’t stop talking, an elephant trainer who forgets his elephant (so uses a frog instead), and a ventriloquist who doesn’t hide his lip flap, letting the dummy take a drink of water while he sings, each play out even better uncut. This celebratory spirits casts Defending My Life as a eulogy for Albert Brooks while he’s still alive to see it — which also happens to be the plot of the episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm he guested on — a work of friction-free hagiography, the general blurb that he’ll be remembered by. It’s a shame that Reiner chooses to frame it this way, because it suggests the story is over, that there will be no more major works, something that he’s admittedly probably in a position to know for sure. But if any artist deserves to see their legend carved next to the marginal struggle they lived in, it’s Albert Brooks, so who can really complain?
DIRECTOR: Rob Reiner; CAST: Albert Brooks, Rob Reiner; DISTRIBUTOR: HBO; STREAMING: November 11; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 22 min.