Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 4, 2021)
Back in the 1970s, Albert Brooks attained some fame via the short films he made for Saturday Night Live. In 1979, Brooks leapt to the big screen with Real Life, his feature debut.
Filmmaker Albert Brooks (Brooks) wants to make a documentary about a “real family”. As such, he intends to shoot every aspect of their everyday lives, and the Yeager clan of Arizona becomes his target.
However, as Brooks documents the Yeagers, he encounters a slew of problems. Warren Yeager (Charles Grodin), wife Jeanette (Frances Lee McCain) and kids Lisa (Lisa Urette) and Eric (Robert Stirrat) don’t quite live up to dramatic needs, so Brooks needs to goose his subjects with artificial drama to create a more exciting product.
As Life notes at the start, a 1973 PBS series called An American Family pioneered this sort of reality TV. Life acts as a spoof of that, and it proves prescient in the way it predicted the future of the genre.
Life also acts as a precursor for the “mockumentary” style of film popularized by 1984’s This Is Spinal Tap. Indeed, Tap star Harry Shearer acted as one of the screenwriters for Life.
Possibly the biggest difference between Life and Tap stems from the nature of the projects. Whereas Tap offered a largely improvised production with only basic outlines from which to work, whereas Life uses a standard screenplay.
This makes Life feel much more like a traditional film than Tap. Whereas the latter plays like a documentary, Life nods in that direction but always comes across as the written/acted flick it is.
I like the concept of Life but the end result seems spotty, to say the least. Honestly, Brooks might’ve been better off if he’d gone with a short film version of the project, as he simply lacks the material to sustain the viewer’s interest across 99 minutes.
Indeed, Life launches well, as the opening segment finds Brooks in his element. At the movie’s start, we see Brooks’ lavish, theatrical pitch for the film, a sequence that depicts Brooks as an egotistical showbiz hack.
Brooks plays this kind of Hollywood phony well, and the beginning segment entertains. It also promises comedic delights that don’t really develop the rest of the way.
Not that Life flops after the opening segment, as it still manages some entertainment. Nonetheless, the film tends to seem stretched thin and not as funny as one might hope.
I can’t put my finger on what goes wrong, but I get the impression Brooks came up with the idea for the movie and he figured that would be good enough. The characters remain largely forgettable, and most of the “comedic scenarios” fail to become especially interesting.
Life does get credit for the way in which it foreshadowed the future of TV, but the movie itself disappoints. Maybe it played better in 1979, but in 2021, we’ve seen too many superior projects in this vein for Life to hit the mark.