Studio:The Criterion Collection Year: 1987 Cast: William Hurt, Albert Brooks, Holly Hunter, Joan Cusack, Jack Nicholson, Lois Chiles Director: James L. Brooks Release Date: January 25, 2011 Rating: R for Run Time: 02h:12m:18s Genre(s): romantic comedy
Paul: It must be nice, to always believe you know better. To always believe you're the smartest person in the room.
Jane: No. It's awful. - Peter Hackes, Holly Hunter
James L. Brooks demonstrates why his nonpareil touch with romantic comedy outlasts any medium, especially one as ephemeral as network—network!—news broadcasts.
Movie Grade: A
DVD Grade: A
It's hard to muster up sympathy for what a tough time James L. Brooks must have had after his maiden voyage as a feature filmmaker, but here we go: following unparalleled success in television, especially with The Mary Tyler Moore Show, his debut feature, Terms of Endearment, was both a critical darling and a commercial hit. He got lots of money and lots of Oscars and was (rightly) praised to the heavens. How in the hell do you do something after that? What can you do that will not disappoint?
But here we are, with his second film, Broadcast News, which is remarkable on all kinds of levels. It's easy to see the dinosaur aspects of it: it was made at a time when the nightly news was at the hub of the media universe, not an early evening ratings loss leader packed with ads from denture creams and erectile dysfunction medications. But this isn't a documentary about an industry in transition; it's a carefully honed romantic triangle, one that is a worthy heir to films like His Girl Friday and The Philadelphia Story. (Both of which, not incidentally, have journalists and press coverage as crucial aspects of their stories.)
It's also a chance to see some of the very best actors in the kind of multidimensional roles they all pine for, but rarely find; and that few of them have the chops to pull off. But my goodness, is the cast of this movie fantastic. William Hurt was surely the biggest star at the time, and it's kind of great that he plays, basically, the bad guy—his Tom Grunick is the pretty boy brought in to appeal to the right demographics. He's got no journalistic pedigree, and he knows it—his candor about knowing what he doesn't know is winning, but it's still kind of astonishing that the guy probably would have had a hard time on his high school paper. Having it in for him particularly is Albert Brooks as Aaron Altman, workmanlike reporter, who's bright and smart, but guilty of one of the cardinal sins of our time: he's just not very good on television. Which, you know, is kind of a problem, if your line of work is, um, television.
But this isn't just a Nielsen throwdown: coming between them is Jane Craig, in the movie's bust-out, star-making performance, by Holly Hunter. She's obviously a kindred spirit with Mary Richards—heck, she's got spunk—but she's really just a firecracker in her own right, a woman of high standards, a workaholic and perfectionist, and deep in her heart, a hopeless romantic. (Is there any other kind?) She ping pongs between the boys, and the movie doesn't play favorites—you can see that the spark is there with Tom, but can you really fall for someone for whom you've got no professional respect, if you are your work?
I could go on and on. But I will not. Of course the movie is of its time in many respects—lots of video cassettes, for instance, and unfortunate shoulder pads, on the women especially. More generally, it's from a time when anchormen and newspapers were at the center of our national dialogue, and when massive layoffs were a scandal, not just another day at the office. Brooks shot in sequence, and on location, and it shows; cinematographer Michael Ballhaus's work looks fantastic, even coming from a time when film stocks were bleeding out all over the place. And the cast is chock full of great smaller performances, too—Jack Nicholson gets his Chet Huntley on as the forbidding anchorman, up in New York; Joan Cusack is vintage wacky in the newsroom; and I especially adore Robert Prosky as the bureau chief, a wonderfully avuncular presence, who was always fantastic in everything he was in.
Brooks' participation in this release make it an especially welcome and informative package. He and Richard Marks, the film's editor, provide a commentary track, which is largely a valentine to the cast—Brooks reports that he hadn't seen the film for years, so hearing him consider it afresh is great, but it also means we get an occasional bit of grasping at distant memories. Most intriguing of all is certainly the alternate ending, and Brooks' heartbreaking story about how a crew member inadvertently botched a careful setup; the director also provides commentary for 11 deleted scenes, many of which fill in gaps about things alluded to in the feature, but not seen.
James L. Brooks: A Singular Vision (36m:06s) is a career overview, and a celebration of his work first in TV, then in film, and then as a mentor: we get representatives from all aspects of his career, including Marilu Henner, Julie Kavner, and Wes Anderson (Brooks' Gracie Films produced Anderson's first feature, Bottle Rocket). It's definitely a kick to see superagent Jeffrey Berg on camera; but I think there's a bit too much of critic Ken Tucker, who seems to fancy himself Brooks' Boswell.
In an extended interview (17m:02s), associate producer and former CBS News producer Susan Zirinsky talks about having been the model for Hunter's character. (She clearly was, and the resemblance is frequently uncanny; but it's not just her life up there, goodness knows, a point that Brooks makes on the commentary.) There's also a hokey promotional piece (07m:56s) from the film's original release; better still are on-set footage and interviews (18m:38s), which are much more process oriented. There really is just a treasure trove of stuff to work through on this release, maybe the best of the year so far. How do you like that? I buried the lead.