an appreciation of: charles grodin

The great Charles Grodin has passed away a couple days ago, meaning the entertainment world lost not only a talented and hilarious actor but also a GOAT-level late night talk show guest.

Following Grodin’s passing the tributes poured in both from fans and from his past collaborators, including Albert Brooks, Steve Martin and others.

Many of those have called out some of Grodin’s most iconic roles such as The Heartbreak Kid, Midnight Run, Heaven Can Wait, Beethoven and, of course, The Muppets Take Manhattan. While I certainly agree with those call-outs, there are three movies that received less attention but to my mind are integral elements in the Grodin filmography.

Real Life

In writer/director Albert Brooks’ debut feature, Grodin plays the husband and father of the Yeager family. They’ve agreed to let Brooks (playing a slightly fictionalized version of himself) follow them around with cameras in an early satire of the reality TV genre, back when it was mostly confined to PBS. As the experiment goes increasingly off-track, Warren Yeager is pulled between his commitment to keep things going as planned and the misgivings of his wife and family, culminating in a crisis involving a horse dying on the table – and on camera – after it’s brought into his veterinary practice/

Yes sir, Aurora’s chicken pepperoni…

The melding of Grodin’s deadpan delivery and Brooks’ deadpan writing was a winning combination, the actor serving as a great outlet for the writer’s style. His ability to sell complete panic without actually losing his cool was perfect for the story, making Yeager into a very relatable figure instead of a caricature, which would have been an easy line to jump over.

Seems Like Old Times

It couldn’t have been easy for Grodin to take his role as assistant district attorney Ira Parks opposite Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn given those two are such “big” comedic actors whereas Grodin was a more subdued performer. But darn if he doesn’t hold his own in every scene, often winding up as the funniest person on screen. Ira has to deal with the fact that not only has his wife Glenda’s (Hawn) ex-husband Nicholas Gardenia (Chase) returned, but that it’s fallen to him to prosecute the crime Gardenia is suspected to have committed.

Neil Simon’s script gave Grodin a chance to play a completely level-headed individual who finds his nice, tidy world suddenly turned upside down, including threatening his career and marriage. He gets to play against the great Robert Guillaume frequently, but one of Grodin’s best scenes is one where his face isn’t seen. When Gardenia is hiding under a guest room bed and Glenda is trying to protect him, all we see are Grodin’s feet, but we know exactly what’s happening because of the strength of his performance.


I’m sorry, but if Grodin’s performance as Murray Blum, accountant friend of Kevin Kline’s Dave, isn’t on your list of all time greats, we can’t hang out.

Life Lessons From: Defending Your Life

Long coma, Art. Long coma.

To refer to Defending Your Life as one of my favorite movies of all time would be an understatement. Albert Brooks’ script about a man who, after he dies in a car accident, finds himself in a bureaucratic afterlife waystation where he needs to justify his existence to determine if his spirit can “go forward” is as lean and airtight as they come. It ranks right below Much Ado About Nothing as a pure example of how dialogue and character development can move a story forward in lieu of big flashy set pieces or artificial “moments.”

The movie, much to my chagrin, turned 30 earlier this month, prompting retrospectives including this interview with Brooks on how the project developed and how a friendship with Carrie Fisher led to Meryl Streep being cast. If you haven’t seen it or just feel like it’s a good time to rewatch the film (it’s never *not* a good time, btw), it’s currently streaming on HBO Max.

In the meantime, from a script that contains more dryly funny bon mots per pound than nearly any other, here are a handful of quotes you can use in a variety of life situations and circumstances.

(Find more Life Lessons From the Movies here.)

When you use more than 5 percent of your brain, you don’t want to be on earth; believe me.

For when you need to exit a situation – party, job etc – in a hurry but want to leave everyone slightly confused until you have made a clean getaway.

It’s not a car, it’s a battering ram. This is what Patton drove.

For when you request a compact sedan from the car rental place at the airport and they give you keys to a van that could seat 15.

Don’t worry, and don’t kick yourself forever. Just take the opportunities when they come.

For when you realize the half-price Blizzard sale at Dairy Queen ended two days ago but only after you drove there already and ordered one.

Y’know if you really wanna make this place feel like Earth, you should open a few of those mini-malls.

For when you’re sitting in the backyard and really want frozen yogurt but can’t muster the energy to stand upright much less actually go anywhere.

Even though this feels like a trial, it really isn’t. It’s just a process that helps us decide, and as imperfect as it may be, we think it works quite well.

For performance reviews, relationship talks or literally any call with your parents.

Welcome to the Past Lives Pavilion.

For when you make the mistake of looking back at stuff you wrote 10 years ago.

I’m fine.

For when you are absolutely, definitively, unmistakably not fine.

Albert Brooks – Director Overview

This week Criterion is adding Albert Brooks’ great Lost In America to their collection. It’s a great choice to be memorialized by the company, with a story that captures the discontent of the middle class in the middle of the 1980s as they find the American Dream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. With this new edition available now, it’s a great time to revisit the trailers for the other directorial efforts from one of my favorite filmmakers.

There are some consistent threads throughout Brooks’ filmography. In every film he plays one of the following: A slightly-fictional variation on himself, a writer of some sort or a frustrated corporate drone. That means audiences, over time, were able to more or less anticipate what could be expected when they knew a new Albert Brooks movie was coming. It was just the details that needed to be filled in.

Real Life (1981)

Brooks foresaw the rise of reality television decades before it actually occurred. The story follows a fictionalized version of Brooks himself, who plays a filmmaker who follows around a Phoenix family and films their everyday lives. That effort goes sideways, of course, as the very act of filming changes the behavior of the participants.

In keeping with its very self-referential nature, the trailer features no footage from movie itself. Instead it has Brooks (in character) promising audiences an experience unlike anything they’ve seen before, including a trailer that’s in 3D, except no one is going to have the needed glasses. He punches toward the camera and does some karate movies and more to emphasize that fact, ending with the appearance of a paddleball champion. Finally, we get the names of the cast and the promise that the actual movie won’t be in 3D.

Modern Romance (1981)

Robert Cole (Brooks) is a pretty successful film editor in Hollywood, making a good living doing what he enjoys. But he’s a mess with relationships, constantly breaking up and getting back together with his girlfriend Mary (Kathryn Harrold). The two alternately enable and can’t stand each other, providing a portrait of the anxieties that go into dating and romance.

Immediately as the trailer starts we see that Robert and Mary are breaking up once again. Back on the singles scene he’s trying to improve himself physically and emotionally, but is still feeling terrible about things. He keeps following her around, though, and they continue to circle each other from time to time. Narration explains that this is a story of the difficulties of…well…modern romance. It’s not as quick-witted as some of the other trailers for Brooks’ films but certainly shows the more neurotic side of his public persona.

Lost in America (1985)

When David Howard (Brooks) doesn’t get the promotion he feels he deserves at the ad firm he works for he throws a fit and is fired. That leads him to set out with his wife Linda (Julie Hagerty) on an adventure to see America and drop out of society. The plans go awry when they stop in Vegas and wind up losing the “nest egg” they’ve been relying on to get them through this period, causing marital problems and forcing them to seek out other jobs.

The trailer shows much of that arc, highlighting the pivotal moments where major decisions are made. We certainly get a sense of Brooks’ dry, weary delivery and how Hagerty’s character kind of goes off the deep end a bit. It’s sold as a relationship comedy more than anything, though one with something to say about finding contentment and stability in the world.

Defending Your Life (1991)

As my favorite Brooks movie I revisited the campaign last year, finding it sold the dry charm of the story pretty well. There were certain elements of the story that were portrayed more accurately than others, but overall it made sure the audience knew it was a high-concept comedy from a writer/director they had already enjoyed previous movies from.

Mother (1996)

Science fiction writer John Henderson (Brooks) has just signed off on his second divorce and is reflecting on the problems he’s had with relationships. He decides his problems with women stem back to childhood and so, to address the issue head on, moves back in with his mother (Debbie Reynolds). He soon finds that as much as he wants to have a grown, adult relationship with her, she’ll always be his mother and treat him as a child. That’s not exactly the fix he was looking for.


We get the background on John’s status as the trailer opens with him in the middle of divorce proceedings. That gets him considering where his relationships have gone wrong and so concocts the plan to move back to his childhood home. His lifestyle doesn’t exactly mesh with his mom’s and he finds things are more difficult than he anticipated. While Brooks’ style was well established at this point in his career, the trailer really serves as a showcase for Reynolds, who brings all her talents and charms to her role and is clearly a capable verbal foil to Brooks.

The Muse (1999)

Here Brooks plays Steven Phillips, a Hollywood screenwriter who’s suffering from a rough patch in his career. So, on the advice of a friend, he hires a modern-day muse named Sarah Little (Sharon Stone) to break him out of his rut and provide some inspiration. Sarah’s free spirited ways, though, clash with Steven’s more buttoned-down personality. Not just that but Sarah winds up not only helping him get writing again but encourages his wife Laura (Andie MacDowell) to open a business of her own, which causes tension in their marriage.

The trailer immediately establishes that Steven is a screenwriter. He notices a friend of his is hanging around with a strange woman who’s originally suspected to be a prostitute but who turns out to be a muse, a source of inspiration. Her services, though, turn out to be more expensive than he thought and the road isn’t as clear as he hoped. There’s lots of talk about freedom and magic and all that as we see how her presence impacts the lives of Steven and his family, all to an unclear ending.

Looking For Comedy In the Modern World (2005)

In 2005 Brooks decided to get a bit topical with a movie that again put him in a role that’s just a slightly different version of himself. He’s recruited to go to Muslim countries to go find out what makes the people there laugh, part of the government’s efforts to understand the people better. Of course, this isn’t a simple proposition as his idea of comedy isn’t exactly universal and despite the efforts of both his official handlers and some local help he’s stymied time and time again.

There’s a lot of that in the trailer. We see Brooks get pitched by a government agency on the mission, which he’s slightly confused at. Cut to him in-country getting used to the people and customs there. It features more than a few cultural stereotypes, including the scene of the call center, but it also shows how Brooks is trying to fit into that world. He’s confused by some of the requests of his handlers and frustrated at how his efforts to make people laugh often fall flat. Overall, though, we see how things are setup and play out.