Albert Brooks and Rob Reiner have been best friends since high school. They are both the sons of prominent comedians who followed in their fathers’ footsteps and went on to become filmmakers. Albert Brooks: Defending My Life (2023) is Reiner’s intimate portrait of Albert Brooks. The bulk of the film is just the two men sitting together and talking at a favorite restaurant. It isn’t profound filmmaking at a technical level, but it is quietly moving.
Reiner and Brooks have that unique chemistry that belongs exclusively to lifelong friends. They have naturally calibrated themselves to each other’s comedic timing and possess the ability to convey the complexly abstract with but a glance. Albert Brooks: Defending My Life attempts to put the audience into the midst of that intimacy. This is the great strength of Reiner’s film.
On the other hand, Albert Brooks: Defending My Life is a career overview and clip show that showcases Brooks’ genius. This cavalcade of groundbreaking comedy is augmented by anecdotes from friends and the praises of admirers. In many ways Albert Brooks: Defending My Life takes the form of an Oscars tribute given a prestige touch. This isn’t bad when the film is informative, but at times it feels reductive of Brooks’ work.
The real benefits of Reiners film will come with the increased exposure being afforded Brooks’ films. When I began writing about films professionally almost twenty years ago Albert Brooks wasn’t experiencing a cultural resurgence. In fact, he wasn’t that hip anymore. But my friends and I still championed Brooks’ movies, particularly Real Life (1979) and Mother (1996) as unsung gems.
An appearance in Drive (2011) and a couple of Criterion editions later and Brooks is being “rediscovered”. Albert Brooks: Defending My Life will hopefully spread the cult of Brooks further than the communities of cinephiles and physical media collectors. Albert Brooks is a comedic genius who has made at least three cinematic masterpieces. Everyone with even a passing interest in the cinema should know his name and be familiar with his work. I’m hopeful that Brooks will supplant Woody Allen in the canon of twentieth century comedy.