THE STORY – Rob Reiner profiles Albert Brooks, comedic legend, acclaimed filmmaker, talented character actor and a lifelong friend, who Reiner first met in their high school drama club.
THE CAST – Albert Brooks, Rob Reiner, Sharon Stone, Larry David, James L Brooks, Conan O’Brien, Sarah Silverman & Jonah Hill
THE TEAM – Rob Reiner (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 88 Minutes
In his 1991 comedy “Defending Your Life,” Albert Brooks plays a newly deceased man who, in the afterlife, is forced to view selected moments from his past so that the powers that be can determine whether he can move on to the next phase of existence. The Brooks character must painfully watch as the high- but mostly low-lights of his life are served up for judgment by harsh, inquisitive strangers.
More than three decades later, Brooks must again endure yet another lifetime recap, this time in the new documentary “Albert Brooks: Defending My Life.” This time, however, the man asking the questions is one who knows him all too well — his best friend since high school and the documentary’s director, Rob Reiner.
The wheel is not being reinvented here, as the film’s set-up is one we’ve seen a dozen times before: two old friends having dinner and reminiscing about the past. But what a past! Because they have known each other for nearly their entire lives, you might expect Reiner to lob softball questions at Brooks and call it a day. Instead, the intimate friendship between the two men has allowed Reiner access to topics about which Brooks has rarely spoken, and the trust built up in their bond over the years allows Brooks the comfort to address them.
Like Reiner, Brooks grew up in a show business family, with both sets of parents being a comedian and a singer — Brooks’ dad, comic Harry Einstein (known professionally by the moniker Parkyakarkus), and his mom, Thelma Leeds, who co-starred in several musical films before giving up her career to raise a family. They named their son Albert, and Brooks alludes to the burden of carrying around a name — Albert Einstein — that’s in itself a punchline and of the choice to defend himself by building up his own comedy skills. It is in tracing the similar life experiences that Brooks and Reiner share that “Defending My Life” becomes most personally affecting.
In his early standup career, Brooks was known as a concept comic who often dared to appear on network television without previously working out his routine before an audience. His was a high-wire act, with the possibility of failure present each time he walked onto a stage, which in part was what made his comedy so exciting. That fearlessness was what brought Brooks to the attention of Lorne Michaels, who was putting together a show that was to become “Saturday Night Live.” Brooks has been widely credited for two concepts now so identified with the series — suggesting a different guest host each week as well as including filmed pieces, an idea that Brooks himself got off the ground in the show’s first season.
Those films led to Brooks’ feature directing career, and Reiner probes deeply into the themes that Brooks chose to explore in those films — eerily predicting the depths of reality television in his debut feature “Real Life” (1979), the intertwining of love and jealousy in 1981’s “Modern Romance,” maternal resentment in 1996’s “Mother” and religious taboos in “Looking For Comedy in the Muslim World” (2017). Brooks’ skill as an actor is also explored with his screen acting debut in Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” his Oscar-nominated work in 1987’s “Broadcast News” and particularly, his villainous turn in 2011’s “Drive,” for which he was named the year’s Best Supporting Actor by 17 different critics groups.
If all of this makes “Defending My Life” sound like a puff piece…well, in a way, it is, at least in the fact that no traumatic life crises or skeletons in the closet are unearthed, which seems to be the norm in recent celebrity documentaries. The film instead simply chronicles the life of an extremely talented artist with a complicated career who has finally found happiness with his wife and kids. What keeps “Defending My Life” from being completely disposable, however, is one key element: Rob Reiner.
The man knows how to shoot comedy, and “Defending My Life” is nothing if not consistently funny. It’s not just the Brooks routines that have aged beautifully over the decades — it’s the rhythm of “Defending My Life” itself. Reiner and his ace editor, Bob Joyce, know just when to cut on a line so that even when the talk turns serious, the narrative flow stays steady, ready for the set-up for the next big zinger, which always seems to be at hand.
What we see of Brooks here suggests an artist who may be even more complex than what the film offers, prompting the wish that Reiner had dug just a little bit deeper to reveal more of that man. Still, the directorial skills of Reiner, for whom “Defending My Life” is his first feature in seven years, help to make this profile warmly empathetic and, even rarer for a documentary, very, very funny.