It's hard to know what's more amazing: that Albert Brooks is one of 2011's biggest comeback stories, or that he did it without directing a movie. In May, he published "2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America," his extremely well-reviewed debut novel. That same month, the neo-noir thriller "Drive" premiered at Cannes, garnering fantastic buzz for the film as well as for Brooks' supporting performance as a casually cruel mobster. Meanwhile, he's quickly become one of Twitter's most consistently funny tweeters, his droll wit fitting nicely into 140 characters. It's been great to have him back.
For years Brooks had been known as the brilliant comic filmmaker of "Real Life," "Lost in America" and "Modern Romance," but there was just one problem: He hadn't made a good film in 15 years. This week, we found out that over a 10-year span from the late '80s until the late '90s he was turning down acting jobs in some pretty prominent movies to focus on his own material. In a parallel universe, Albert Brooks the Filmmaker may have decided to take a backseat to Albert Brooks the Movie Star. That might have ended up being a better universe.
These thoughts were bubbling in my head after reading an interview with Brooks in Collider (with a h/t to Vulture) where he talked about really enjoying the experience of playing Bernie Rose in "Drive." But wasn't he hungry to make another movie since he hadn't done one since 2006's "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World"? Not at all...
"Right now I wouldn't mind devoting a couple of years to playing some really cool parts. I got my chops wet. Over the years, every time I made one of my own movies, I go to the sidelines as an actor for three years. I couldn't stop. I turned down so many roles because if they're giving you money to deliver a movie, you can't say, 'You know what, can I take the summer off and do this part?' So you take yourself out of the acting game."
You may be wondering what roles exactly. Brooks is happy to answer that question:
"Well, I turned down so many parts. I couldn't even begin to tell you. Dead Poets Society and Big and Pretty Woman. One part that I actually wanted to play, and I was in pre-production of my own movie, just because I thought I wanted to work with Paul [Thomas Anderson] was the part that Burt Reynolds got in Boogie Nights. I liked that whole ensemble. When I read that script, I really liked it. But I couldn't stop, I couldn't shut down what I was doing. But, regrets are stupid; they don't mean anything and they don't add up to anything."
By the way, those weren't supporting parts in "Big" and "Pretty Woman": In a 2003 Entertainment Weekly interview, he mentioned that he was offered the lead roles in those films, not to mention Billy Crystal's part in "When Harry Met Sally." So from roughly 1988 until 1997, he turned down five movies (that we know of) that accounted for more than 10 Academy Award nominations, including three roles that ended up earning Oscar nods. (I'm just going to assume he was up for the Robin Williams part in "Dead Poets.")
What did Brooks do instead during that period? He made two movies -- "Defending Your Life" and "Mother" -- and appeared in "I'll Do Anything," "The Scout" and "Critical Care." "The Muse," his very mediocre 1999 comedy with Sharon Stone, is probably the film that kept him from doing "Boogie Nights," and he co-starred in "Out of Sight" in 1998. Is that total output more worthwhile than being in "When Harry Met Sally" or "Dead Poets Society" or "Boogie Nights"? I like "Defending Your Life" and "Mother," but after that his movies seemed to lose their bite. And as much as I would love for Brooks to be able to keep making his own films, it's hard not to think that the world would have been better off with Brooks playing a seasoned porn director in "Boogie Nights" rather than a struggling screenwriter in "The Muse."
While it's impossible to know if the shooting schedules would have conflicted, there was a chance Brooks could have played charming lowlifes in "Out of Sight" and "Boogie Nights" within the span of 10 months. It could have opened up a ton of doors for an actor who had already shown some range, transitioning from a small part in "Taxi Driver" to a major character in "Broadcast News." If he'd landed the Oscar nomination Reynolds received for "Boogie Nights," maybe it would have helped get him the clout to finance the films he was pursuing. But when you consider those films were "The Muse" and "Looking for Comedy".... well, maybe it would have been better if Brooks had decided to pursue "some really cool parts" earlier than "Drive."
Since 1999, Brooks has mostly seemed like a large talent whose best years were behind him. He was terrific as the voice of the concerned father in "Finding Nemo," and he still did the occasional voice work for "The Simpsons" or a short stint on "Weeds." But it seemed all but certain we weren't getting another "Modern Romance" again any time soon. And maybe that's fine. With his great performance in "Drive" and his upcoming role in Judd Apatow's "This Is Forty," perhaps it's a sign that he doesn't need to make movies to express himself creatively in the same way as he used to. He's already written one terrific book -- maybe he's got another in him? But seeing him cleverly negotiate his every scene in "Drive," what's clear is how much I've missed him. And if he keeps doing good work like he's done this year, I'm thrilled it means I don't have to wait for another of his own movies for that to happen. Like Brooks said, regrets are stupid -- so is second-guessing a career and wondering what might have been. For the first time in a long while, his future is starting to look almost as exciting as his past. Before this year, who could have predicted that?