It doesn’t take years of "reality TV" to appreciate the genius of this, a double-bill with Godard’s Numéro Deux will do. The parodical template is the domestic ethnography of PBS’s An American Family series, Albert Brooks comes to it equipped with Martian helmet-cameras and loads and loads of self-absorbed abrasion. Playing a comic-cum-documentarian named "Albert Brooks," he serenades the Phoenix locals with an updated version of "Something’s Gotta Give" before inaugurating his experiment, a year-long recording of a nuclear family headed by Charles Grodin and Frances Lee McCain. "Be yourselves" is his only direction; the first day of filming is barely over and the irritable wife has already taken off, only to return and take the crew with her to the gynecologist’s office. As the months pass, the filmmaker frets about his "leading man" coming off as unsympathetic, old-Hollywood studio bosses push for celebrity replacements, and the clan’s submerged despair rises to the surface. The first of Brooks’ analytical comedies is his funniest and most rigorous, built with subtle whiffs of Kubrick and anchored by the awareness of every moment being recorded and watched. A work of vacant spaces, of the distance between psychiatric meetings and show-biz focus groups, reportage and involvement, subject and camera. The matter of "altering the reality you’re filming" is what one contemplates with Flaherty and Warhol, here the director is not averse to hitting on the wife if it means advancing the narrative. "You think you have it bad? I have to deal with people like John Simon and Rex Reed!" Brooks notes the family’s depressed complicity in its own manipulation, yet saves the sharpest knives for his own character -- the schmuck-artist chasing the ghost of vérité until the literally incendiary inspiration of taking control of the mise en scène. The Simpsons mined it season after season, Haneke missed the joke in The Seventh Continent. With J.A. Preston, Matthew Tobin, Lisa Urette, and Robert Stirrat.
--- Fernando F. Croce