DOCUMENTARY "Mel Brooks Unwrapped"
WHEN|WHERE Friday at 9 p.m. on HBO
WHAT IT'S ABOUT Alan Yentob, a former BBC executive and longtime documentary producer, has been trying to make a film about Mel Brooks for decades, but he's been unable to finish it. There are reasons for that, some explored here. "Unwrapped" represents his last valiant attempt at completion, but Brooks is not quite ready for completion. This film includes outtakes from interviews Yentob conducted with Brooks decades ago, plus some recent ones.
MY SAY Mel Brooks is 93 years old, which are words (and numbers) he'd probably hate to read, but he's not going to see this review anyway so it really doesn't matter whether he hates them or not. Still, 93. That's old for most of us. For Brooks, at least in the context of this short film, it is not. After all, he was once 2,000 years old. What's 93? His film and stage classics live on, as funny as ever. He's a national treasure and such treasures don't "age," but "mature," "grow" and "blossom." He'd probably like to read those words.
He'd probably like this film, too. You certainly will. "Unwrapped" is an eccentric perambulation through the years and through the clips — fast-cuts forward and fast-cuts back, as Yentob, the flawless straight man, tries to corner his elusive quarry into saying something (anything) serious about his art and comedy. Best of luck with that, Alan.
Much of the film is comprised of interviews Yentob held with Brooks back in the '80s, then in the aughts. In the present-day encounters, Yentob emerges like some discomfited character out of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" — a bit stiff, a lot square. Brooks, meanwhile, is Brooks. As Yentob valiantly tries to walk him through his career, Brooks takes Yentob on detours — comic flights of lunacy that push the dogged producer further and further away from that perfect wrap to the Mel Brooks story.
There are poignant moments. In one, Brooks and Yentob drift over to Carl Reiner's house. The great comic is in bed, reading a loose-bound picture book called "The Rise and Fall and Rise and Fall and Rise and Fall of Radio." He seems tired, lost in the deep past. You are forced to wonder: How diminished will the world be when Reiner is gone from it?
In one vintage interview, Brooks becomes mock-indignant when Yentob wonders what he says to people who want him to make "serious" films: "I get up on my high horse, which is seventeen and a half hands tall, and say [baloney.] Every one of my films is serious … Every comedy I have made deals with some aspect of the social system."
There are plenty of clips from those great comedies — largely familiar, well-loved and well-rubbed clips. There is, however, a not-to-be-missed outtake from an obscure 1983 BBC film, "Arena: It's All True," a satirical take about how the then-new technology of videotape was perverting life and human memory. In this, Brooks speaks from the grave via videotape.
Intentionally or not, "Unwrapped" will remind viewers that it's also impossible to imagine this world without Mel Brooks in it. Late in the hour, he's listening to Sinatra sing "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning." Brooks disappears into some distant memory, then says, "why did he have to die? If somebody had to live forever, I'd vote for Sinatra."
If somebody had to live forever — or at least 2,000 years — you know who'd get my vote.
BOTTOM LINE "Unwrapped" will make you happy to be alive, and if you're already happy to be alive, then happier.