April 09, 1979 12:00 PM

Off-beat, off-the-wall and only occasionally off-base, this is an original and insidiously funny film. Directed and co-written by sometime stand-up comic Albert Brooks, it starts as parody of the 1973 TV documentary An American Family, the saga of the Louds. But in this case the film crew—headed by Brooks, playing himself—is an onscreen part of the documentary, even though Brooks constantly tells his subjects to ignore him. (When the wife of the subject family, on the verge of a breakdown, tells Brooks, “I’d like to be alone,” he says, “Okay; can we come with you?”) Though some of the Brooks film quickies that ran on Saturday Night Live seemed inane, here, with time to work on mood and characters, he quietly devastates Americans’ fascination with the mass media. He’s helped by Charles Grodin, who as the husband is marvelously confused, trying at one point to react calmly when his wife (TV veteran Frances Lee McCain) announces that she’s suffering her period on camera (“I have terrible cramps, I’m bleeding profusely and I want to vomit on the table”). It’s the perfect movie for those who suspect cinema verité is more cinema than verité. (PG)

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