A few months ago, I had my first viewing of the brilliant Albert Brooks romantic/comedy Defending Your Life, which he wrote and directed in 1991. Just recently, I had another viewing of the brilliant Ricky Gervais romantic/comedy The Invention of Lying, (which was on my top ten of '09, but I now see at much too low of a spot). Gervais had previously written and directed his television shows The Office and Extras (with comedic partner Stephen Merchant), but this was his first foray into feature writing and directing (although he again shares both credits, this time with friend Matthew Robinson). These two movies might not initially seem connected, but I felt that they were sort of spiritual siblings. The Invention of Lying is set in a world where everyone tells the truth, whether you want to hear it or not, and Gervais' character tells the first lie. He falls in love with a woman played by Jennifer Garner, who has no qualms telling him that she can't be with him, since they "would have chubby little fat kids with stub noses". Brooks' movie concerns a man dying, showing up in a sort of Purgatory called Judgement City, and finding out that he is going to have to defend the way he lived his life on Earth before he can move on to Heaven. While there, he meets and falls in love with a character played by Meryl Streep. The central ideas in these two movies aren't the most Earth shattering ideas ever, or anything like that. But they're outside the box of the type of movies we generally see, it I think it proves that when brilliant comedians take control of their fate on the big screen, we in the audience can really reap the rewards.
The Brooks picture is really a fascinating one. He's told that he will have to defend 9 (I think it was) days of his life while in Judgement City. "Is that a lot?" he asks. It's not a lot or a little, he's told, it just is. But to a neurotic guy like Brooks, that sure seems like a lot, and when he tells people how many he has to defend, people always give him a "Ooh, sorry" kind of response. But the city is nice, they can eat all they want without gaining any weight, and stay at hotels while they're there. Streep's character is booked at a Four Seasons type hotel, while Brooks is relegated to the local Holiday Inn type, only reinforcing his fears that he will be sent back to Earth instead of "progressing on". Streep's character is only defending 4 days, and when Brooks sneaks into her trial he sees things like her saving her family from their burning house and her prosecuting attorney crying and saying "I just wanted to see that again" after Brooks' prosecutor has been relentless in saying he doesn't deserve to move on. As a writer/director, Brooks had previously been criticized for being able to come up with great ideas, but never a satisfying ending for his movies. That is certainly not the case here, as you'll find out if you ever get a chance to check it out.
Gervais also sets his movie in a world different than one we typically see. Even the love interest, the Jennifer Garner character, could seem like kind of a bitch when you take into account everything she says to Gervais, but the more you look, you see that she's actually a very sweet person. She's as nice and warm as anyone can really be in a world where a nursing home is called "A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People" and the Pepsi signs read "For when they don't have Coke". But Gervais' character introduces lying into the equation, so that whenever Gervais and his friend get pulled over for drunk driving, Gervais simply says "He's not drunk", and the officer immediately apologizes for assuming that he was drunk when he wasn't. But during an emotional scene trying to comfort his mother (surprisingly powerfully acted by Gervais), he accidentally creates religion and heaven, which brings all kinds of complications to this strange world.
At their hearts, both movies are really just these comedians taking on the usually stale genre of romantic comedies. Taking control of their careers and starring in their own films, they go to something as simple as romanticism, but with their own unique twist on how they see the world, bringing delightful twists to our movie watching enjoyment. After seeing Defending Your Life, it makes me wish that Brooks didn't take so long between directorial efforts (especially since I've always loved his next movie, Mother, with the brilliant Debbie Reynolds). Thankfully, Gervais seems to be in the middle of a great creative run, since I see that he has a project supposedly due out this April. I look forward to it, and wish more great comedic minds stepped behind the camera (and into the writers room) of the projects that they work on. We would probably have a lot more interesting landscape of big screen comedies out there. Woody Allen can't be the only one to make a career of doing it that way.