When Albert Brooks greets me in the reception area of his Beverly Hills office, I immediately recognize his shirt. The baggy, faded red, short-sleeve button-down imprinted with dull green palm trees belongs to the inimitably tacky wardrobe of Bernie Rose, the mobster and sometime B-movie producer Brooks plays in Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive. I mention this, and Brooks plays dumb. It's not until we're walking down the corridor, out of the receptionist's earshot, that he lowers his voice and makes a confession.
"You know what? I might have taken it."
Drive, which opens Sept. 16, is a fully satisfying, highly kinetic thriller that's both a love letter to the city of Los Angeles, visualized as an endless vista of "100,000 streets" bathed in otherworldly light, and a dismantling of Hollywood — the industry that employs Driver, Ryan Gosling's mysterious mechanic/getaway driver/stunt guy, and also the mythology that attracts outsiders looking to remake themselves as characters in their own private movies. And Drive is a dream platform for the 64-year-old Brooks to launch his third career act. Bernie may seem like a departure for Brooks, but in fact the role fits him as well as the gaudy threads he nabbed from the set.
He was born Albert Einstein (See why he changed it?) into a family of comedians: His brother is Bob Einstein, best known as fictional stuntman "Super Dave" Osbourne and now on Curb Your Enthusiasm as Marty Funkhouser. Their dad, Harry Einstein, a comic best known for a Greek caricature called Parkyakarkus, died minutes after roasting Lucy and Desi at the Friars Club.
In the 1970s, Brooks began to parlay his success as a uniquely self-reflexive stand-up into a career as a working actor, making his film debut in Taxi Driver and eventually earning an Oscar nomination for Broadcast News. But his small yet extremely devoted legion of fans would say Brooks' greatest legacy is as the writer-director-star of seven features, bookended by the proto-reality-TV satire Real Life in 1979 and 2006's Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, an extremely dry (and underrated) vivisection of American exceptionalism.
In both of those films, Brooks played a character named "Albert Brooks" — a spoiled, beyond self-centered Hollywood star on a preposterous anthropological assignment in a desert clime (Phoenix in the former, India and Pakistan in the latter). He has always been so good at playing a very particular kind of asshole that it's not clear to everyone that he's acting. Brooks remembers that Rex Reed took Real Life at face value, bitching, "Why would a studio give this idiot the money to do this kind of nutty experiment?" Though released by Paramount, Real Life was financed independently. It was not an actual vérité experiment but rather a scripted film complete with real actors (including the already famous Charles Grodin) and a nutty musical number (performed by Brooks, who would sing again 15 years later in the scrapped musical version of James L. Brooks' I'll Do Anything). Brooks returned Reed's, uh, compliment by laying audio from Reed's appearance on Larry King's radio show — during which he expounds on comedy — over the opening scene of Lost in America as an inside joke.
Maybe too inside. For decades, magazine headlines trumpeted Brooks as "the funniest man in America you've never heard of" — spinning him as a commodity with both huge crossover potential and the sheen of underground cool. But Brooks says he never intended his work for mass consumption.
"My goal wasn't to get everybody, my goal was to get enough so I could get the next [project made]. I never, in anything I've ever done, tried to get you to like it. I was never going to succeed at that. That's not the way most entertainment is made. Most entertainment is trying to get you. It's tested, like toothpaste."
Brooks as Bernie is in some sense the kind of against-type casting that defies the test-and-tweak model of moviemaking — he's certainly the first Brooks character to kill a man with a knife and fork in a pizzeria. But he's really not so far off from a number of the roles Brooks has directed and written for himself over the years. Emotionally violent characters like the pathologically indecisive boyfriend at the center of Modern Romance, or the desperate, loose-cannon husband Brooks plays in Lost in America (a role in which he tried to cast Bill Murray) blur the distinction between protagonist and antagonist. The ambiguous lines between hero and villain, the slipperiness between romance and violence, are among Drive's key subjects.
"Life — and certainly comedy, by its nature — walks the line," Brooks says. "Great stand-up comics are people who are pissed about things but are making you laugh about it. Modern Romance, if I had taken that to extreme, he might have smothered her, strangled her. That's what guys do."
On the phone from his home in Copenhagen, Drive director Refn says he "always wanted" Brooks for the role, but he still asked that the actor make his case for the part in person.
"There are certain things that I've wanted to do," Brooks says. "And one of them is to play a guy that's that guy — I don't like to call him a bad guy. I went to see Nicolas. [I said], 'You can go with the six people that are the bad guys in every movie ever made' — and I knew he wanted to hear this, because he asked me to come to his house — 'But, to me, it's more exciting when I don't know that I know everything that's going to happen when a guy comes on-screen.'
"So Nicolas liked that, and he said, 'You know, when I was a young man, I watched that movie Lost in America and I saw you yelling at your wife, and it scared the hell out of me.' And I said, 'OK, that's good.'"
"Albert was like a volcano of emotions," Refn remembers, laughing. "There was something really unique — and threatening. I felt that this guy, eventually, he will kill somebody — so let's make it in a movie."
It's been six years since Brooks directed Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World — his longest hiatus from filmmaking since he first stepped behind the camera — and as of now, he's got nothing in the works. Financed by billionaire Steve Bing, Muslim lost its original distributor, Sony, when Brooks refused to honor an exec's order to change the title. The film was picked up by the now-defunct Warner Independent and released in the dead zone of January 2006. Audiences ignored it and critics mostly didn't get it; Brooks' portrayal of self-absorbed cluelessness was, again, apparently too convincing. He's used to that by now. "I like movies about failing. And sometimes you blur the line, and it looks like you failed."
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Still, the wan reception was particularly frustrating after the struggle to get the movie out in the world, and the whole affair seems to have made Brooks wary of returning to the writer-director's chair. "The first act is writing, the second act is filming, the third act is releasing," he says. "If you have to partake in the third act, it hurts the first act of the next one. It's like a prizefight. You get punched."
The best Albert Brooks works are conceptual stunts that cut deep with their unvarnished comic critiques of romantic and familial relationships, the production and consumption of entertainment, and the general American experience. These interrelated subjects form the core of 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America, Brooks' first novel, which was released earlier this year and became a best-seller. As he awaits the January paperback release and promotes Drive, Brooks is filming a role as Paul Rudd's dad in Judd Apatow's Knocked Up spinoff, This Is Forty. And after that?
"I've been thinking I would like to put together some interesting parts as an actor right now," Brooks muses. "I never wanted to be a comedian. I wanted to act. In my younger years, when I was getting offered everything, I was making my own movies. If I start another movie, I'd be out of commission for two years, so while this window's open I'd like to see if something's there.
"I think if I'm going to make another movie, I would find a way to do it at a number where people are OK with whatever I'm going to do." Brooks pauses. "I don't know what that number is. It may be $18."