“Albert Brooks: Defending My Life,” a documentary about the venerable comedian, filmmaker, actor and writer, directed by his lifelong friend Rob Reiner, has the easy, amiable air of a career retrospective — wistful and hagiographic, it’s the kind of thing that usually accompanies a lifetime achievement award.
Now 76, Brooks certainly deserves the recognition: the first four of the films he wrote and directed between 1979 and 2005, “Real Life,” “Modern Romance,” “Lost in America” and “Defending Your Life,” are among the finest American comedies ever made, and his trailblazing work on the late-night talk show circuit during the 1960s and 1970s had a seismic impact on the landscape of contemporary comedy. (To say nothing of his Academy Award-nominated turn in “Broadcast News,” a near-peerless masterpiece.)
But there’s a reason we have comedy roasts, not toasts, as the rhapsodic tone of this film makes clear — breathless flattery just isn’t that interesting, no matter how funny the person receiving it. While Brooks deserves acclaim, he deserves it in a format as compelling and dynamic as he is. “Defending My Life” is simply too flat.
Brooks and Reiner, lounging in a booth at Matteo’s Restaurant in Los Angeles, reminisce chummily about Brooks’s life and work, while an ensemble of comedy A-listers including Chris Rock, Ben Stiller, Jonah Hill and Larry David gush over his influence in a series of standard-issue talking head interviews. There are also clips from Brooks’s films and standup routines, which render much of the praise from the interviewees redundant. We don’t need to be told that Brooks is a genius. Even a brief glimpse of his work makes the case.
Albert Brooks: Defending My Life
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 28 minutes. Watch on Max.