By most accounts, reality television began with the 1973 miniseries An American Family. The creators of that series spent seven months filming the daily activities of an ordinary family, intending to provide a snapshot of what ordinary American lives actually looked like. From the beginning, it was clear that there was reason to question the legitimacy (or at least the honesty) of this new genre: some argued that the presence of cameras inspired the show's subjects to “act” in ways they wouldn't have under normal circumstances, while others claimed that the manner in which the show was edited offered a narrative that didn't accurately reflect the realities of life.
In the 1979 film Real Life, comedian Albert Brooks (making his big-screen directorial debut after creating a handful of well-regarded short films for Saturday Night Live) takes these controversies and pokes them with a cattle prod, finding all sorts of darkly comic ways to explore how easily “reality” can become compromised in such a scenario. Naturally, much of what he comes up with pales in contrast to the cynical, calculated methods TV producers use to manufacture “reality” these days... and yet, Brooks' comic instincts are so strong that the movie is still a laugh riot.
We first meet Brooks (playing “himself”) at a press conference in Phoenix, Arizona, where he announces his intention to spend a year filming the Yeager family. He introduces a pair of psychologists who will be monitoring the project and helping to ensure its scientific legitimacy, then proceeds to serenade the crowd with a cheesy big band number (complete with live orchestra). The psychologists aren't pleased, feeling that all the razzle-dazzle detracts from the serious nature of the project. It's the first of many occasions in which the filmmaker's desire to create something entertaining conflicts with his promise to make something honest.
Right off the bat, the documentary becomes more tense than anyone was expecting. The Yeagers have just returned from vacation, and they're all a little tired and stressed-out (you know, that “needing a vacation from your vacation” feeling). Jeannette Yeager (Frances Lee McCain, Gremlins) is suffering from menstrual cramps, and her husband Warren (Charles Grodin, Midnight Run) timidly asks if she, “really needs to use that heating pad at the dinner table.” A nasty fight ensues, followed by a panicky Warren hastily informing the camera that, “this isn't how we usually act.” He makes some version of this statement almost every day.
The film initially feels like a series of sketches, as Brooks wrings big (and sometimes squirm-inducing) laughs out of a visit to a gynecologist's office, an operation on a horse (Warren is a veterinarian) and a graveside funeral service. However, the assorted pieces begin to form a bigger picture in the film's second half: the repeated personal “failures” cause Warren to panic about what audiences will think of him, the marriage begins to show serious signs of weakness, Brooks grows increasingly comfortable with interfering with with the reality of his film and the psychologists grow increasingly angry about the direction the project is taking. The laughs give way to genuine tension for a good stretch of the film's second half, but it pays off: the ending is inspired madness.
Brooks is exceptionally good here, playing a cheerful sort of desperation (of the “hahaha, aren't we all having a good time?” variety) in the earlier scenes and a much more frazzled sort of desperation later on. He doesn't depict himself as a bad man, but merely as a guy who continually finds ways to justify breaking his own self-imposed rules. Grodin is frequently hilarious as a man who always seems painfully aware of the camera's presence, which becomes even funnier when contrasted with how comfortable the rest of his family seems with the notion of “being themselves.” There's also a nice supporting turn from J.A. Preston (Body Heat) as an oh-so-serious psychologist, whose calm-but-stern demeanor makes a nice contrast to Brooks' sweaty chattiness.
This is a strong directorial debut, and one that establishes Brooks' comic voice pretty clearly. He's frequently compared to Woody Allen (they're both witty neurotics), but Brooks – as both an actor and a filmmaker – comes across as friendlier, messier and more down-to-earth. He often explores topics many of us have thought about (reality TV, the afterlife, the American dream), but continually finds fresh, funny angles we may not have considered. He has thoughtful observations to make, but you get the sense that he'd never let a message he wishes to deliver get in the way of a good joke.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 98 minutes
Release Year: 1979