It’s astonishing, and a bit sad really, how prescient Real Life was in retrospect. In 1979, Albert Brooks had already predicted and skewered the contrived inauthenticity of reality television with this biting mockumentary, yet we’ve gone ahead and given over much of our entertainment hours to the format anyway.
Brooks plays Hollywood star “Albert Brooks,” who embarks on a directorial effort to document a year in the life of an average American family living in Phoenix, Ariz. He aims to pioneer an authentic new form of drama (which he assuredly believes will win him a Nobel prize), yet right from the opening scene we know the project is doomed. Speaking before the gathered townspeople, encouraging them to just be themselves whenever the camera is around, Brooks can’t help but present himself as an elitist showbiz entertainer – right down to the pandering song he concludes with, backed by a 12-piece orchestra.
There are all sorts of wry touches, from the robot-like camera helmets the crew wears, rendering them incapable of blending in anywhere but Mars, to Charles Grodin’s simpering grin as the father who has sold his family for a season in the spotlight. It all culminates in a climax of forced, hysterical drama that’s still less outrageous than much of the reality TV we’re now inundated with. (After all, none of this is “real” in any way.) “These people are very close to complete personality disintegration,” a consulting psychologist tells Brooks just before the plug is pulled on his film. Watch most of the poor souls on a Real Housewives or Bachelor episode, and you might say the same thing.