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JUNE 8, 1998: 

Modern Romance

(1981) with Albert Brooks, Kathryn Harrold, Bruno Kirby, James L. Brooks

Lost in America

(1985) with Brooks, Julie Hagerty, Garry Marshall

Defending Your Life

(1991) with Brooks, Meryl Streep, Rip Torn, Lee Grant, Buck Henry

D: Albert Brooks

It's oddly therapeutic watching a typical Albert Brooks character obsess about "Mercedes Leather" versus real leather, or whether his BMW 325 "looks like a turd" compared to the 750 parked nearby.

Over the last three decades, Brooks has built his smart-comedy niche around the all-American neurosis of comparative material happiness. In this worthwhile triple header of what can now be termed Brooks' "middle" films, you'll marvel at the writer-director's dead-on mimicry of cruel, shallow, and inadvertently funny human behavior. Because someone else has received the promotion he coveted, Brooks' Lost in America character wishes aloud that his rival's new boat will sink and that he will be eaten by sharks. In Defending Your Life, Brooks is devastated when he learns that in a past life, he's actually been eaten by a wild animal himself ñ while an acquaintance of his has been none other than Prince Valiant. You will squirm as he demonstrates the absurdity of wanting what you cannot have. And you will giggle as he exploits the comedic power of the bathrobe.

In Modern Romance, Brooks plays a flunky movie editor who, more or less, stalks his girlfriend (Kathryn Harrold who, at the time, was Brooks' off-screen romantic interest). In the opening scene, he breaks up with her. For the remainder of the film, he expends Kathie Lee Gifford-like energy trying to get her back. In a rollicking sequence featuring Brooks alone (wearing a bathrobe), he makes that most grievous of day-after-break-up errors: Inebriated, he telephones an old flame. "I have love for you, Ellen," he pledges. She agrees to a date. The next night he picks her up in his Porsche. He drives once around the block, depositing her back on her front steps. "I'm dating too soon, Ellen" are his parting words. Later in the film he is standing on a cinder track wearing an overpriced, brown velour jogging suit he has just purchased. "I've just broken up with someone," he tells the pushy sales clerk (played by Bob Einstein, Brooks' real-life brother). "I'm starting a new life and I feel that running should be a major part of it." Albert crouches in a three-point sprinter's stance. He races about 40 yards, crosses over to a pay phone, and calls his girlfriend.

Annoying? You bet. Realistic? Definitely.

In Lost in America, he plays an ad agency man who ñ along with on-screen wife Julie Hagerty ñ quits his job, trades his BMW for a Winnebago, and sets off for parts unknown. "We're dropping out of society," the couple announce to anybody within earshot. Supported by their life savings, which they have dubbed the "Nest Egg," they flee suburban life in pursuit of the Real America. "We're going to touch Indians!" they exclaim. They tell everyone that they want their lives to be "just like Easy Rider." And just like Easy Rider, things get ugly for Captain America. But unlike Fonda and Hopper ñ whose Nest Egg survives their demise ñ Brooks might as well be dead, after Hagerty's character blows their wad at a Vegas craps table. Turning misfortune into outright embarrassment, Brooks then pitches a desperate, impromptu advertising campaign theme for the casino boss to refund his money: "The Desert Inn Has Heart!" (He does all this while wearing a bathrobe.) Amused, the casino boss (Garry Marshall) comps their hotel room.

Attorney Bob Diamond (Rip Torn, left) counsels Daniel Miller (Albert Brooks, right) about his odds of getting a halo and wings in Defending Your Life.

In Defending Your Life, an advertising executive has died behind the wheel of his brand new BMW. He's shipped off to Judgment City, a sort of cross between San Diego and Purgatory, where you can eat all you want without gaining an ounce, and every day it's 72 degrees and sunny. (Here, everybody wears a bathrobe-like shroud.) There he undergoes a civil procedure (under the tutelage of the magnificent Rip Torn) to determine whether he has overcome fears that would prevent him from becoming a "remarkable citizen of the universe." During this trial, Brooks views film clips of his life's petty deceits and cowardly misadventures. At the conclusion of this searingly funny slam dunk of a case for the prosecution, Brooks' closing statement to persuade the judges that he's ready to advance to a higher level, is "I'll do the best I can."

In all of these films, Brooks' anti-heroes are reckless, pitiable. Nevertheless, they are all doing the best they can. Trapped by self-consciousness, they buckle under everyday fears. They bungle salary negotiations, accepting the first offer they hear. Above all, they dread public speaking, and they strike out ñ memorably ñ with beguiling women, so close and so out of reach. But in spite of everything, they plod on. They're bathrobed casualties of advertising and German cars. Aren't we all? ñ Stuart Wade

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