Albert Brooks can see the future

June 3, 2011


After a career in which he has consistently been a critical favorite, Albert Brooks is experiencing something new: a popular hit.

His first novel, “2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America,” has popped on to the New York Times’ best-seller list amid stellar reviews. That kind of commercial success is an unaccustomed feeling for Brooks, who has had to live with making brilliantly funny films on a minuscule budget that win critical encomiums and a cult following.

“I found out it’s on the best-seller list and it’s like a dream,” Brooks, 63, says in a telephone interview just before a Memorial Day weekend that took him to a bat mitzvah in Salt Lake City (“Don’t ask,” he says).

“It’s beyond anything I hoped for. If you look at the best-seller list for American fiction, they’re all sequels to detective stories or stories about hunting serial killers. That’s what’s called American fiction these days. So to have a book that is none of those make it to the best-seller list is a thrill.”

In “2030,” Brooks imagines the America of two decades hence: broke and deeply in debt to China, among other nations. Cancer has been cured and other medical innovations mean that the elderly are living even longer (“90 was the new 50,” the book explains). Which leads to a societal fissure between the old and well-off – on whose health the government still spends money – and the young, who are saddled with massive debt if their parent doesn’t have the right medical insurance.

When a massive earthquake decimates Los Angeles, the United States turns to China for help rebuilding. But Pres. Matthew Bernstein (the first Jewish president) finds that China’s assistance comes with strings attached: specifically, China wants part ownership of Los Angeles.

Brooks did extensive research before he wrote the book: “I read that kind of thing anyway, but I also interviewed a lot of people,” he says. “I wanted to make sure I was right about the way amendments to the Constitution work, things like that – anything that was a major plot point.”

As he imagined how cancer might be cured (a new blend of amino acids that would kill cancer cells in the blood without shutting down the rest of the body’s immune systems), he says, “Nobody said, ‘Oh no, that could never happen.’ In fact, one guy said, ‘Jesus – that could work.’”

The changes in society and technology are mostly subtle, rather than outlandish: Cars don’t fly, but jets can be operated by remote control. Remote robotic surgery means that you can be anywhere in the world and still be operated on by the world’s best surgeons.

So which of his many flights of fancy does Brooks think is the most unlikely? “The idea that we would have a Jewish president,” Brooks says with a laugh. “Everything else seemed exactly normal.”

Brooks feels that, in terms of where America is actually heading and where it winds up in his novel, “we’re in the first act – and the book is the end of the second act,” he says. “Things go slowly. They don’t happen fast. There has to be a reason for a revolt. If there had been no draft in the 1960s, there would have been no revolt in this country against the Vietnam War.”

Brooks had tried writing part of this story as a screenplay but quickly realized that “these ideas are too big for the kind of budget I can get. I can get maybe $9 million to make a movie and be left alone. But when they made ‘Minority Report,’ making a futuristic Lexus cost $7 million alone. The kind of budget I can get buys you 28 or 29 days of straightforward simple shooting and no digital effects.”

Brooks has assembled a stellar body of work as a director, creating films that are both hilarious and thought-provoking: from “Real Life” (which anticipated the meddlesome unreality of reality TV) to “Lost in America” (which skewered narcissistic yuppie self-fulfillment); from “Defending Your Life” to 2005’s unjustly overlooked “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World.”

But while he’s long been a critical favorite, Brooks’ humor requires an audience that’s comfortable with having to think about what it’s seeing, something that’s rapidly dying out in film. So Brooks decided to try his hand at a novel.

“I hadn’t read about these things in fiction,” he says. “So I wanted to put it all into a fictional story. I wrote the first sentence and I never stopped. I could make it as big as I dreamed. It felt like I was getting away with murder.”

Yet, despite the fact that he’s created a dystopian vision, he still thinks it’s a hopeful one: “I think it’s hopeful because, in 20 years, we’re still here,” he says. “There are a lot of stories set in the future where there’s not even a functioning society, where it’s just six people living in a cave. I don’t like those. I don’t find apocalyptic stories very interesting.”

As he wrote, Brooks had the lurking fear that the future he was projecting would happen before he finished the book: “Every morning, I’d go on the computer to see if I was ruined,” he says. “But the opposite happened.”

There’s a lengthy lag time between when a book is written and when it’s published. After he turned in his novel to his publisher, Brooks was questioned by a skeptical editor, who wondered if he hadn’t exaggerated in depicting a massive earthquake that hits Los Angeles, registering 9.1 on the Richter scale.

“Then the earthquake in Japan happened and it reached 9.0,” Brooks says. “I put that number in my book a year ago. Then we saw a 9 in Japan, something that hadn’t happened in 300 years. Otherwise, so far nothing has happened that made me have to change anything.”

There have been discussions about a “2030” movie, though Brooks says, “I don’t know if I’d want to direct. Maybe I’d write the screenplay. Maybe I’d play the president. But it’s a novel and it’s mine already.”

Brooks recently acted in “Drive,” a film by Nicholas Winding Refn that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival: “I got a chance to play an interesting nasty guy. I always thought that I could and Nick thought that I should.” And he’ll play Paul Rudd’s father in “This is Forty,” a spin-off of the Rudd character from “Knocked Up,” which Brooks will do for writer-director Judd Apatow this summer. Meanwhile, he’s already thinking about another novel.

“I’m just coming out of this experience and the experience has been positive,” he says. “It opened my mind to ideas that I never thought I could do in a movie. For example, I think about outer space all the time. I love those stories. That’s the kind of thing I sort of want to write a book about.”

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