The term “genius” gets bandied around too loosely, but the who’s who of voices assembled for “Albert Brooks: Defending My Life” make a strong case for its subject, both as a comedian and filmmaker. Part tribute, part documentary, part “My Dinner With Andre,” the HBO presentation serves as a warm and wonderful trip down memory lane for those who know Brooks’ work, and a grand introduction for those who don’t.
Spending much of the documentary in conversation with his former high-school classmate and pal of nearly 60 years, Rob Reiner, who directs with a light touch, Brooks is hailed as “one of the most original thinkers that we’ve ever seen” by Chris Rock, “a shining god of comedy” by David Letterman and a “comedic tornado” by Steven Spielberg. And that’s just in the first 10 minutes.
Jon Stewart likens Brooks to Letterman in terms of being “deconstructionist geniuses,” as Reiner dutifully goes back to his and Brooks’ high school underpinnings as the children of famous comedic talent, Carl Reiner and Harry Einstein, respectively. (Einstein went by the stage name Parkyakarkus and famously died after performing at a Friars Club event.)
Growing up in show business, their classmates included the children of Groucho Marx, Joey Bishop and actor Lee J. Cobb. Born Albert Einstein (a name that reveals his parents’ sense of humor), Brooks began distinguishing himself as a teenager doing strange conceptual pieces, successfully migrating the act to TV and eventually landing on “The Tonight Show,” where receiving the blessing of Johnny Carson elevated his profile in a way almost nothing else could.
“Not until you do Carson do you realize what that was,” Brooks recalls, citing the on-the-street reaction that greeted his first appearance.
After abruptly souring on stand-up, Brooks began carving out his path as a filmmaker, with deadpan shorts for “Saturday Night Live” followed by 1979’s “Real Life,” a remarkably prescient satire that anticipated the world of reality television. After that came “Modern Romance” and “Lost in America” in the early-to-mid ’80s, and “Defending Your Life” in 1991.
The Brooks-Reiner banter is so understated and natural as to basically feel like eavesdropping on one of their lunches, which practically yields more memories than insights. Most of the latter come courtesy of the other folks interviewed, augmented by clips like Brooks’ ventriloquist shtick or his elephant tamer who has to substitute a frog, a gag that really must be seen to be appreciated.
The only understandably false note resides in the title, which plays off one of Brooks’ best films but doesn’t really convey the nature of the exercise. Because there’s nothing defensive about “Albert Brooks: Defending My Life,” which is rather a celebration of a talent who, in his chosen field and on his terms, actually managed to live up to his birth name.
“Albert Brooks: Defending My Life” premieres November 11 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO, which, like CNN, is a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery.