The documentary is one of the most celebrated genres of film, as well as being one of the most derided. The mockumentary has seemingly become one of the dominant strands of comedy, ranging from The Office to a litter of Christopher Guest classics. The reason documentaries are so easy to make fun of is very simple, they are often made by self-serious, indulgent filmmakers who are more concerned with “purity” and “reality” than they are with making a film that actually says anything interesting. The cinéma vérité era of documentary filmmaking is a classic example of this. The idea of being an impartial, “fly on the wall” to what is really going on sounds great, until you realize it just cannot happen. The idea of acting for the camera has just become so ingrained that you will never capture it, and by some miracle you do, the result may be sad, tragic, or worse, flat-out boring. The perfect point-counterpoint for this idea is the 1973 PBS documentary An American Family, and the send-up of it by Albert Brooks, 1979’s Real Life.
Way before mockumentaries were in vogue, Albert Brooks hit one out of the park with his 1979 film Real Life – but what makes it such a great comedy?