In the opening of 1979’s Real Life, text informs the viewer of a 1973 PBS documentary series called “An American Family,” which included twelve hours of footage of the daily lives of Bill Louds and his family in Santa Barbara, California. Famed anthropologist Margaret Mead called the series “as significant as the invention of drama or the novel… a new way in which people can learn to look at life, by seeing the real life of others interpreted by the camera.”
Real Life takes the “An American Family” concept and goes behind-the-scenes, showing not only a family as they are being filmed, but the people that are filming them. Albert Brooks will live with a family for an entire year, filming their lives throughout that time. His subjects: the Yeager family of Phoenix, Arizona.
Of course, this is not actually a documentary about Albert Brooks making a documentary, but a spoof of the PBS series’ concept, co-written and directed by Brooks. Brooks is playing himself, and the Yeagers are played by actors (Charles Grodin, Frances Lee McCain, Lisa Urette, and Robert Stirrat). The film examines the impact that the cameras and Brooks’ presence have on the Yeagers as their lives are being filmed.
As any good spoof should be, Real Life is both very funny and incredibly thought-provoking. Beginning with Brooks introducing himself to the people of Phoenix with a corny song, Real Life has many memorable and laugh-out-loud moments.
To a viewer in 2016, the film’s subject is more relevant than ever, in the age of hit reality TV shows and “famous” YouTube vloggers. For a select few, the creation of 10-minute videos detailing trips to Target and daily chores has become a legitimate career path. Just as Margaret Mead predicted, people are watching these videos and “learn[ing] to look at life, by seeing the real life of others,” however manipulated that “real” life may be.
And it is manipulated, regardless of whether it’s self-directed or shot with an entire crew. Brooks infiltrates the lives of the Yeagers and has an impact on them over the year that he spends with them. He also appears on camera himself and directs his own actions, always aware that he is being filmed and telling a story.
The ego and smugness of Brooks’ character adds a nice touch to the film. He talks about himself quite a bit and breaks the fourth wall often. His documentary is not just about the Yeagers — it’s about him, not just because he sometimes appears on camera but because it relies on the narrative that he is able to create. He says he aims to capture an average family and their daily lives, but sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally, he changes the course that the story takes. (We see the same concept in the reality tv spoof UnREAL, with producers’ success and failure relying on their ability to create drama and craft narratives.)
It’s kind of remarkable that this was Albert Brooks’ theatrical debut as director. He crafted a film ahead of its time and in Real Life can already be seen establishing many of the “trademarks” that his films are known for — including that ego, as discussed above. Even more surprising is that I’d never heard of Real Life until Brooks’ films as writer-director were added to Netflix in July. In my opinion, this is one of Brooks’ very best and deserves to be regarded as a modern classic.