Real Life

I was in college when the first season of MTV’s “The Real World” began the programming shift that would lead to the complete absence of Music from Music Television.  But many years earlier, Albert Brooks brought a film to the screen that was strangely prophetic regarding the move to reality entertainment.  Brooks had become known for his short films which were a regular feature in the early years of “Saturday Night Live,” but this was his first feature…1979’s “Real Life.”

The film chronicles Brooks (playing himself) as he sets out on a year-long project to document the life of an average American family.  Brooks works along with a scientific institute in Boulder, CO which specializes in the study of human behavior for this project.  They go through a lengthy process of selecting a family, but eventually, the Yeager family of Phoenix, AZ is chosen.

A high-tech, and very expensive, regiment of camera equipment has been developed to document the lives of the Yeager family.  Various flat-panel, wall-mounted cameras are installed in their home, plus, a crew of camera operators who wear large, helmet-like, cameras will follow the family around.  Brooks takes great pride in telling us that these cameras do not use film, but record their images digitally and store them on microchips.  He’s saying this in 1979…and look where we are now, campers!  Sing it with me now… “There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow, shining at the end of every day.”

Anyway, dad, Warren Yeager (Charles Grodin) is a veterinarian, and is very gung-ho about the project.  As the filming begins, he quickly starts trying to hold his two kids to some higher standards of behavior in front of the cameras.  Meanwhile, his wife Jeanette (Francis Lee McCain) could care less about good behavior as her period arrives on the first day of filming.  Before the project is barely underway, she leaves for the weekend…refusing to allow the camera crew to follow her.

When she returns she meets with Brooks and is very apologetic about her leaving suddenly.  As a peace gesture, she offers to have the crew come and film her visit to the gynecologist.  She also starts to show some degree of attraction to Brooks.

The family soon starts to experience various stressful situations, and Brooks, who is concerned about making a hit movie, begins to worry that the family won’t be likeable to moviegoers.  As he grows more and more concerned, Brooks begins to insert himself into the Yeager’s lives more and more.  Soon the scientists observing the project, especially Dr. Ted Cleary (J.A. Preston), begin to express concerns with the direction it is heading.  Pressure from the movie studio begins to mount as well.

When Cleary leaves the project and publishes a book about the disaster the project is becoming, the press begins to hound the family.  Eventually, the family wants out and Brooks begins to go mad as he tries to save his film.

I realize this description makes the film sound depressing, but keep in mind, I did leave out all the jokes.  There are a ton of them, and they’re not so funny when I tell ‘em, so why bother.  These aren’t jokes with traditional punch lines…many of them are quick comments made by Brooks or Grodin, and if you laugh too hard you’ll miss the next one.

All the humor aside, the film can be looked at as a commentary on many things.  It’s an interesting look at the nature of celebrity as, throughout the production, Brooks spends more time focusing his cameras on himself than on the family he supposed to be documenting.  It’s also an interesting jab at the self-importance that can plague documentarians or members of the news media.

“Real Life” is a very funny film, but in today’s world the humor takes on a whole different angle.  The film essentially answers that thought that we’ve all had when watching reality television…”how real can all this actually be?”  Honestly, who among us hasn’t thought that the mere presence of cameras, lights, producers, etc, makes what we call “reality television” anything but “reality?”  And so, Brooks manages to make an insightful and hilarious commentary on what is considered entertainment, over a decade ahead of its time.

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5 thoughts on “Real Life

  1. I love this flick! I caught this maybe half a decade ago on a DVD I blind bought, and I wasn’t disappointed. This is easily my favorite Brooks movie, too, especially when he completely loses it at the end. Good pick!

    • I think I first saw this about the time “Defending Your Life” came out. That film made me want to investigate Brooks’ earlier films, like this and “Lost in America.” I still haven’t seen “Modern Romance,” though.

      • I like Defending Your Life a lot. Modern Romance has some pretty funny bits, but I found Lost in America to be far more aggravating than funny.

  2. This is an hilarious film and it is actually a spoof of the 1973 PBS Documentary ‘An American Family’ that was the very first reality show. It dealt with the Loud Family and it was supposed to be an enlightening look at the everyday American family, but instead when the cameras starting rolling everything began to unravel. Their son came out of the closet and announced he was gay and the wife asked for a divorce. You’re right, describing Brooks dry humor is hard and has to be seen to be appreciated. I will be reviewing another one of his movies ‘Lost in America’ on my blog on Monday.

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