Even before I could identify film and TV writer/director James L. Brooks by name or realized that he was creatively responsible for so many of my favorite productions, I understood that the one thing that set his humanistic projects apart from the rest began on page one.
Far too frequently we're lulled into easy passivity wherein Hollywood replaces good old fashioned plot with cutting edge special effects to dangle candy in front of our eyes and convince us it's a meal. Granted at the same time, we’re usually able to grasp the bigger picture concerning the characters' plight and their need to get from Plot-Point A to Plot-Point B in one hundred minutes or less on the big screen or under twenty-two minutes on television.
However, it's a rarer and richer experience altogether when we realize that we actually understand something that goes beyond a cookie cutter plot when given the opportunity to identify with the characters in the frame as relatable people as opposed to mere plastic pieces to be moved around a figurative game board from start to finish.
Borrowing the title of a Disney theme park ride at Epcot Center and turning it into a description, I tried to explain this phenomenon while reviewing Brooks’s As Good as it Gets for my high school newspaper, attempting to share in the space allotted that instead of just making “People Movers,” Brooks emotionally moved the people in the audience right along with the ones onscreen.
And this feat is one that he's achieved from the very beginning of his career as witnessed in Brooks’s groundbreaking work on The Mary Tyler Moore Show up through his own efforts in addition to his mentor-like role producing Say Anything..., Big, Bottle Rocket and The Simpsons through his writer-centric company Gracie Films.
And while As Good as it Gets would probably be the most popular choice made by film fans selecting his quintessential work, in my eyes Brooks's overall emphasis on character driven plot and dedication to flesh and blood human beings that transcend the two-dimensional medium and break through the fourth wall until they’ve made their way directly to our hearts is the most apparent in his 1987 masterpiece Broadcast News.
Although now it seems impossible to imagine anyone but Holly Hunter in her Academy Award nominated role as the impossibly bright, hyper workaholic news producer Jane Craig, originally Brooks had written the character for his Terms of Endearment leading lady, Debra Winger.
When Winger bowed out due to pregnancy, Hunter stepped in during the final stages of pre-production to take part in her fourth starring role in a transformational year in Hunter's life as News coincided with Raising Arizona.
Given the amount of dialogue she needed to master in a short time multiplied by the frenzy of going from film to film, it's probably safe to say that by the time Brooks first called “Action,” Hunter could certainly understand the drive of her ambitious, adrenaline fueled perfectionist onscreen alter-ego.
And to writer/director James L. Brooks, Hunter's awe-inspiring ability to fully embrace her character to the point that she could improvise entire scenes on the spot still doesn't go unnoticed or unappreciated twenty-four years later on this Criterion Collection Blu-ray release of News.
Unveiling some deleted scenes including a recently unearthed alternate ending that would've given audiences an entirely different (and not exactly welcome) experience, Brooks makes an intriguing decision to watch the unused fully improvised romantic finale for the first time in ages while simultaneously offering up his opinion via Criterion's audio commentary track.
Owing to the remarkable talent involved, it is quite passionate and incredibly well played by the actors. Instead of the ultimate epilogue set in the future, the film's sophisticated yet screwball inspired romantic triangle is resolved into a final pairing of two leads bound together more out of sexual tension/frustration and curiosity than the firecracker-like conversational chemistry we longed to see spark into an explosion from mere banter to the bedroom for the triangle's other twosome.
However, I'm glad that News didn't go down that safe, saccharine and unrealistic road in giving us the type of Hollywood ending that undoubtedly Jane Craig and likewise her hopelessly infatuated best friend, the ethically minded, sharp-tongued reporter Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) would've fought tooth and nail to keep off their newscast.
The issues discussed in the film concerning the evolution of news from information into entertainment seem timelier than ever as we wonder whatever happened to those great debates regarding just what constitutes as news now in this era of too-much-information.
And although the concerns onscreen are a touch dated, Jane and Aaron's plight for objectivity and straightforward news without turning the anchors into celebrities is vital, thought-provoking and additionally hilarious as hell, particularly when it's charged with the undercurrent of romantic tension as well as personal and professional rivalry.
After an awkward encounter filled with mixed messages between Jane and a handsome stranger goes awry in the film's first act wherein a male up-and-coming anchor informs her that most of the time he doesn't understand the news he's reading, she's mortified to discover that the man in question -- former local station sports announcer Tom Granick (William Hurt) -- is her network's latest hire.
Incredibly handsome, earnest yet vapid, although Tom's relationship with Jane is fraught with emotional landmines from the start, it isn't until Aaron senses that the colleagueship between Tom and Jane may be morphing into a potential romantic alliance that he (as well as the audience) begins to question whether or not Tom is as naïve or as harmless as he appears, given his influential role.
Admittedly, the movie’s revelations about Tom are minor in comparison to some of the fake sources and major leaps in media integrity and breaches that have occurred over the years. Nonetheless, it's hard to watch News without questioning newscasters’ reliance on Facebook, Twitter and social media to inject opinions into the stories and shape them for our amusement as opposed to serving the incredibly vital role of holding those in power accountable for their actions, as constitutional watchdogs for those of us without access, time or knowledge to break through the jargon and uncover the truth.
On the other hand, Broadcast News isn't All the President's Men after all as -- similar to Brooks's As Good as it Gets and Spanglish -- amidst all of the drama we discover a rather involving and relatable romantic comedy subplot that's been rapidly growing out of sight, somewhere in the background.
And while it isn't News that love can turn anyone into a fool, luckily James L. Brooks spins it a unique way, by memorably giving Albert Brooks the chance to “broadcast” some of contemporary American cinema’s most hilarious confessional, self-deprecating dialogue not penned by Woody Allen from the conversational shorthand style phone calls he shares with Jane to his memorable monologues.
In fact, Albert Brook nearly steals the entire movie away from Hunter and Hurt in the film's most heartbreaking yet romantic speech that finds Aaron moving from a stream-of-consciousness jokey attack on Tom as “the devil,” before ultimately discovering in a roundabout way that he “buried the lead,” while declaring his love for Jane.
As impressive as it is to find even one of these monologues in a single studio made film, Albert Brooks's wonderfully nonsensical yet revelatory evaluation on Tom, media culture and love is all the more memorable because it is the cherry on top of an elaborate, extended sequence comprised of mishaps involving the same character that utilized several different modes of humor from slapstick to speechmaking all to tremendous effect.
Thus, Broadcast News continues to set the bar for screenwriters of every generation as there's something new to discover on every viewing. Overall, it's that rare motion picture contradiction that feels both old and new at the same time given the Keystone Kops touches here and there as Joan Cusack's character jumps over a child in an office made obstacle course combined with the same style of dramedy that Brooks was a part of with MTM and Taxi on the small screen.
Lovingly restored by Criterion in a Newsworthy release that – just like the feature presentation – is as respectful of its audience as it is of the main characters brought to life by Holly Hunter, Albert Brooks and William Hurt, James L. Brooks's masterful “People Mover” remains one of the twentieth century’s greatest examples of the term “moving pictures” to this day.
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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.