- The Washington Times - Friday, May 23, 2003

NEW YORK — Director Andrew Fleming knows Albert Brooks is as famous in Hollywood for turning down gigs as he is for his depressed and de-feated comic persona.

This is the man, after all, who rejected a permanent host slot on “Saturday Night Live” during the show’s mid-70s heyday.

So Mr. Fleming naturally assumed Mr. Brooks would reject the co-starring role in the director’s remake of “The In-Laws” even though the part of the hand-wringing podiatrist was a perfect fit.

The character, as Mr. Fleming describes him, is a big-city neurotic with multiple phobias.

“Who do you go to? Albert. It was a list of one for me,” Mr. Fleming says.

Fortunately for Mr. Fleming, Mr. Brooks surprised him, signing on for the remake of the hilarious 1979 strange-bedfellows comedy starring Alan Arkin and Peter Falk.

Mr. Brooks co-stars with Michael Douglas in “The In-Laws” as the uptight doctor opposite the latter’s danger-loving man of international intrigue. The two are thrust together for the first time on the eve of their children’s marriage to each other.

The re-imagined “In-Laws” discards much of what made the first film click, down to its Latin American setting. The new film spends more time on the blushing bride and groom (Lindsay Sloane and Ryan Reynolds), a possible concession to today’s youth-driven market.

What remains is all the bickering between the mismatched leads.

Mr. Brooks, 55, wouldn’t have it any other way.

The actor, participating in a recent press gathering on behalf of the film, recalls that the movie’s initial drafts leaned too heavily on the original’s now-classic gags.

“The first script I saw, there was even a ‘serpentine’ joke,” Mr. Brooks says, alluding to the gag in which Mr. Falk tells Mr. Arkin to run in a snakelike pattern to avoid being hit by a hail of bullets.

“The subject is big enough that you can remake the movie: It’s called two people meeting who should never meet.”

The original film is considered a small comedy gem in some circles, just not in Mr. Brooks’ circles.

“I wasn’t an ‘In-Laws’ freak, but I knew a lot of people who were,” he says diplomatically.

Mr. Brooks, who also will be heard on-screen this summer in Disney’s “Finding Nemo,” did his homework before signing on for the remake.

“I went on the computer and went on the AFI top 100 comedies [list], and it wasn’t in there. I thought, ‘OK, at least it’s not [number] four,’” he says.

Remakes aren’t automatically a losing proposition, he argues, as long as the right films are selected.

“Alan Arkin chose to do something I’d never do; that’s remake ‘The Pink Panther,’” he says. “You don’t want to redo Stanley Kubrick. It’s just not right. I’m hoping nobody does ‘Lost in America’ with Keanu Reeves.”

He needn’t worry: Nobody will ever confuse Mr. Brooks with the screen idol.

Born Albert Einstein, Mr. Brooks grew up in Beverly Hills. He dabbled in sports writing before hitting the road as a stand-up comic. He landed appearances on “The Tonight Show” and “The Ed Sullivan Show,” but they didn’t secure any acting parts, so he abandoned the live comedy circuit.

He made his belated screen debut a memorable one, playing the smugly progressive campaign apparatchik with proprietary feelings for Cybil Shepherd in Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976). The acting neophyte was all the while scoring critical acclaim with several comedy albums.

It was around this time that he turned down the “Saturday Night Live” hosting gig, agreeing instead to make film shorts for the program.

That experience begat “Real Life,” a pseudodocumentary that launched his career as an auteur, a West Coast Woody Allen minus the early box-office success. “Modern Romance” (1981) followed, but it took 1985’s “Lost in America” to solidify Mr. Brooks’ place as a premier comic storyteller. The film is No. 84 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American comedies.

Two years later, he earned a best-supporting-actor nomination for his very Albert Brooksian role as an earnest drip of a TV newsman in James Brooks’ “Broadcast News.” He expanded his small but loyal following with his fourth directorial effort, 1991’s charming “Defending Your Life.”

His film career has slowed since then. The most recent film he directed, 1999’s “The Muse,” left even ardent fans cold, and projects such as 1994’s “The Scout” did little to burnish his reputation.

He calls that film “the one bad experience of my whole movie career.”

“The studio forced that phony ending onto that picture,” he says, perhaps revealing why he doesn’t work as consistently as other, lesser, talents. “The picture was to end softly and elegantly. … I yelled so much I haven’t worked with 20th Century Fox again.”

The gravelly voiced actor takes his time with each project, often taking years between films he writes and directs.

He compares his work ethic to that of Fred Astaire, though from Mr. Brooks’ self-effacing tone, it’s clear the terms of the comparison are narrow.

“Everyone said it looked like he was [just] doing it, [but] God knows he must have rehearsed. How can you just do that?” he asks rhetorically.

Mr. Brooks will go over a scene again and again before he’s satisfied.

“I spend time to make it comfortable for myself so it can look like it’s just happening,” he says. “The process isn’t for consumption, unless it’s on the DVD,” he says, riffing that every scrap of filmed material ends up on a DVD outtake reel.

Some modern comics, such as Chris Rock and Jim Carrey, notoriously ad-lib on the set and expect their cast mates to go along for the ride. Not Mr. Brooks, who says he respects the medium too much for such a slapdash approach.

“With movies, there’s too much pressure and expense for you to get there … and come up with a scene on your feet,” he says. “You can tell when people are struggling to think of the next word. I don’t think movies are good for that.”

Mr. Fleming says Mr. Brooks proved as detail-oriented as one would expect from a perfectionist.

“He wants to know everything about everything in a scene, everybody’s name and birthday, every detail,” Mr. Fleming says. “Then, he throws it away and seemingly does nothing in the scene with it.”

The writer-director may be hailed as a comic genius by film critics, fellow actors — even rag-mop shock jock Howard Stern is a devotee — but mass-audience approval has always eluded him.

Perhaps a role in a more audience-friendly feature such as the light, agreeable new “In-Laws” will expand his audience.

Mr. Douglas, for one, thought his fellow fiftysomething was ready for such an assignment.

“I thought he was perfect for this,” Mr. Douglas says. “I’m glad he stepped out from his own pictures and took a walk on the wild side.”

That side figures in a few scenes unworthy of Mr. Brooks’ acerbic wit. The actor does bring his patented slow burn to the part, igniting laughs where there likely was no tinder on the page.

Call Mr. Douglas a fan, having caught Mr. Brooks’ act up close and personal.

“It’s really fun to watch Albert because he analyzes it, breaks it down and executes,” Mr. Douglas says.

Mr. Brooks may not have any blockbusters under his belt, but he has the respect of his peers and the tenacity to turn down much of the schlock others gleefully embrace.

He also has proved true to himself, for better or worse.

“There’s nothing I won’t say. … Whatever the repercussions are, I don’t care,” says Mr. Brooks, who proved a good sport in his latest film by briefly wearing a thong swimsuit for an easy laugh.

“If I pass away and the word ‘thong’ is in the first or second sentence [of the obituary], I made a big mistake,” he says.

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