Daily Archives: May 13, 2017

James L. Brooks: High-Stakes Gambling, The Ethics of Over-Privilege, and the Comedy of Dysfunction

Written for a collection edited by Adam Cook, Making the Case: Contemporary Genre Cinema, whose publisher belatedly changed his mind about publishing. This is the article’s first appearance. — J. R.

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Out of his half-dozen comedy features to date as producer-writer-director — Terms of Endearment (1983), Broadcast News (1987), I’ll Do Anything (1994), As Good as It Gets (1997), Spanglish (2004), and How Do You Know (2010) — James L. Brooks has had three big commercial successes (the first two and the fourth) and three absolute flops (the third, fifth, and sixth). And because all six of these movies are concerned equally with personal failure and personal success, functionality (emotional and professional) as well as dysfunctionality (emotional and professional), it somehow seems fitting that each one has represented a highly ambitious as well as a highly risky undertaking.

The above paragraph has the disadvantage of making Brooks seem so unexceptional as a commercial filmmaker that one might wonder, on the basis of this description,  whether he’s worth examining at all. Some might also question whether all six of his movies qualify as comedies, despite Brooks’ own insistence that they do. (He’s even suggested that the comedy of Terms of Endearment represents his “solution” to the problem of how to make an entertaining movie about someone dying of cancer.) But arguably the only other assertion that might be considered questionable in my paragraph is the claim that they’re all “high-risk undertakings,” at least insofar as they all have bankable stars in them.… Read more »