Monday, November 15, 2010

James L. Brooks' BROADCAST NEWS (1987)

Most romantic comedies, you know what you'll get.  Matter of (mostly) fact, you'll know what you'll get for most of the beats to go along with the story in the first fifteen minutes.  Broadcast News eschews that expectation just a bit by giving a prologue where we see the main characters as kids, specifically we see how Young Aaron is beaten up at his graduation only to give the putdown that his bullies "won't make more than 19 grand a year!", and how Young Jane spends her nights staying up late writing news reports.  Cut ahead to adulthood and the two of them are working together at a news station.  We know this as writer/director James L. Brooks puts the title card "Future News Reporter" and "Future News Producer" under the kids.  They're those kind of people.  Not so hard to peg down in conventions of usual cinematic tropes of romantic comedies.  Not even when a typical leading-man figure in Tom - a seemingly natural newsman - takes or tries to take center stage in a triangle of Tom-Jane-Aaron.

Broadcast News handles two subjects with such class and ease, and a distinction for what makes each subject appealing for a grown-up audience, that it's irresistible, if only for those who are jaded after so many movies over the years giving us characters we are told told to care about and just don't.  One of these are the relationships, plain and simple.  Good characters just feel natural to their circumstances.  There is a scene somewhat early in the story where after Jane has bombed at a speaking engagement about the declining quality of TV (bombed in that practically everyone walked out) Tom, the one who was watching and truly engaged, goes out to dinner with Jane.  They wind up back at her apartment bedroom, but it's a mostly innocent conversation.  'Mostly' in that there is some minor sexual tension- or, no, not tension, just an air of comfortability of two people who are attracted to each other but don't act on a thing - and the conversation is on what Tom has been doing at his previous station, his nerves about moving on, not being able to write, etc.  There is an understanding between the two, and they never say a thing that feels untrue to who they are.

Having characters this good, or just mature in their own way, seems to be a rarity in movies that have a "light" quality.  And indeed there isn't anything totally light about the other subject of the film, which is news.  It isn't Network, that is to be sure, it doesn't have the teeth to lunge for the jugular like Lumet/Chadayefsky had.  And yet I think the romantic relationship that's contrasted with the 'news' portion of the story works better for Brooks as his scope of the news- coming from someone that has been in TV for a while before going into movies- is with a touch that is strong but not scathing.  The view of the news is that of, for its period, clarity: news is, as Tom puts it, about something of a 'salesman' thing to it, of the newsman putting the information but it having to be the person saying it to connect with the audience, but it's also about the conviction of a good story, which Aaron and Jane know very well.   A masterful touch is to have the most purely suspenseful moment having to do with a last-minute change to a newspiece (gotta include the Norman Rockwell and all) that becomes a photo-finish thing with Joan Cusack running through an obstacle course of a hallway to get tape in time.

There is also in the 'news' portion of the movie some more sobering passages to it.  Aaron (Albert Brooks) wants to get on the air again as an anchor and it's just one of the hardest things to figure as he hasn't done it in years.  Tom gets to him with the 'salesman' angle, helpful as he is, and there is a wonderfully sad-funny scene where he starts sweating profusely during a regular read-through of the night's news, and things turn to chaos behind him as he keeps going forward.  Later in the story there is drama- not the manufactured kind in most rom-coms of a third-act change-up but a real 'uh-oh'- as cut-backs happen at the station and people lose their jobs.  This, as with other scenes in the movie, carry and air of tricky balancing that JL Brooks manages like an assured acrobat, juggling the comedic touches to the story with how real everything is, how... adult and reasonable, but how unreasonable feelings sprout up.

The characters, again, are what make this kind of movie.  From the big three of the story to smaller characters, even Jack Nicholson's glorified bit part as the big-time nightly news anchor (his one scene where he appears off-news-camera is hilarious), these are richly and carefully drawn characters.  Sure, there may be one or two many moments where Jane just bursts out into tears.  Maybe I don't know enough news producers who have emotionally-fragile states of being.  Maybe it's meant to contrast how sarcastic/cynical Aaron is and calm/assured/sweet Tom is.  And Jane in the middle, a smart, tough, hyper-articulate gal who gives directions precisely to cab drivers and can be extremely on edge in a producer-studio.  Especially insightful and engaging are those scenes between her and Aaron, where Holly Hunter and Brooks have that real connection as actors and it translates so well with the characters. It's there too between Jane and Tom, though perhaps there is something to what Aaron goes on about Tom, "He's not the devil, he's not evil, he just lowers standards, just a little bit, a salesman."

I didn't expect to be drawn so much into the conflict, but there you go.  These are newspeople who have their own share of neuroses and moments where they can be unbearable- more to themselves than to others or the audience, such as when Aaron sulks half the time after not getting to go on air with a special live report, only to chime in on the phone with such good nuggets that feed right over to Tom in the studio- and we want to see them, come out with what they want, or perhaps what they deserve, in the end.  The news backdrop is sincerely interesting and Brooks likes the dynamic of producers-bosses-anchors-reporters, yet it's ultimately a character piece.  That William Hurt makes his character so likable, genuinely so with an air of conventional charm that isn't there with Albert Brooks (though his Aaron makes things up with self-deprecation and cynicism) is a further challenge to the conventions of the piece.  The love triangle that's there has deep feelings of fun and dread, that Jane knows at some point she just may have to choose.  But for a while, we're just along for the ride.

It's like a light-dark-romantic-not-romantic-sort-of-satirical comedy-drama.  If it only tightened a couple of spots (those of which I'd need a fine-tooth comb to really find), maybe give a couple more scenes to Nicholson and cut a little of the random crying, it'd be one of the very best of its almost un-genre-fiable kind of the 80's.  It's a character piece for those looking for something a little edgier, but not too far.  It makes a good mid-way point between fluff of the period like, I dunno, Working Girl, and Network.  Or, to put it another way, As Good as it Gets.

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