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By Patrick Goldstein
It’s hard not to argue, with only the smallest apology to Larry David, that Albert Brooks has the most distinct comic voice of his generation. When we were talking the other day, just after the announcement that Osama bin Laden had been killed by U.S. special forces in an affluent suburb of Islamabad, near an elite military academy and a lush golf course, Brooks said dryly: “It would be like Hitler living in Burbank. You’d have to think the Burbank police were in on it, wouldn’t you?”
Even though he is best known for directing and starring in a string of groundbreaking comic films like “Modern Romance” and “Lost in America,” Brooks, 63, has helmed only one movie since 1999, finding it easier to get work as an actor — he’s costarring in a new Judd Apatow film that shoots this summer. He’s also been busy penning his first novel, “Twenty Thirty: The Real Story of What Happens to America.” Due out Tuesday from St. Martin’s Press, the novel is a revelation, painting a caustic, unsettling and only occasionally comic portrait of a country plumb down on its luck.
Cancer has been cured, robotic surgery is the new rage and the elderly can live longer than anyone ever imagined, while rarely looking their age–90 is the new 50. Along with pilotless jets, someone has even invented shirtcams, which allow people, mostly paparazzi, to press a shirt button and take perfect video of unsuspecting celebrities, like a movie star who was caught having sex with another man in a parked car. Even worse, as Brooks writes: “He left his hair at home and he looked forty years older. The combination of bald and gay was a killer. It dropped his asking price by twelve million dollars.”
Unfortunately, no one has invented a magic wand to fix America’s crushing economic woes. With the nation’s median age soaring, virtually all of the country’s resources are being devoted to caring for the politically potent elderly, prompting open revolt by a growing number of disaffected young people who are stuck with shrinking health benefits. In the midst of this growing conflict, a magnitude 9.1 earthquake hits Los Angeles, destroying almost the entire city.
To make matters worse, the U.S. government is so deeply in debt that it doesn’t have the money to do anything about it. When the American president asks for another huge loan from the Chinese government, China agrees to rebuild L.A. only if it gets a co-ownership stake in the new city.
If you spend a lot of time reading Thomas Friedman’s political commentary about the United States’ inability to get its financial house in order or Fareed Zakaria’s essays about the decline of America, Brooks’ scenario hardly seems preposterous. In fact, it feels like he’s caught a wave, cannily imagining what America will be like if we continue to live beyond our means, refusing to grapple with our out-of-control deficit, addiction to oil, political gridlock, crumbling infrastructure and deteriorating public education system.
“The novel is meant to be very plausible,” Brooks told me, sipping coffee in the corner of a Beverly Hills office suite that belongs to Norman Lear. “I almost wanted the book to read like a news story. This is not a faraway America. I mean, most of the science fiction I’ve read has premises that never came true. This is what I believe is actually happening to our world.”
In person, Brooks is a lot like the characters he’s played in his films — restless, irrepressible and brimming with wild ideas. Unfortunately, it would cost far too much money to put all his wild ideas about the future into a Hollywood movie. “I did an earlier version of the book as a script,” he explains. “But as soon as you decide that the cars all look different in the future, I’d go, ‘I can’t afford that.’ If you look at the Lexus they have in ‘Minority Report,’ I bet it must’ve cost $4 million all by itself.”
What is most striking about “Twenty Thirty” is its depiction of the Chinese, whom Brooks portrays as having the kind of bold, entrepreneurial initiative and manic economic energy America once possessed. The Chinese of “Twenty Thirty” view Americans as a once-formidable, now slightly backward people — as if we were quaint relics from another age. Brooks says he’s never been to China, but he’s dazzled by the stories he’s heard.
“When my brother, Cliff, came back from China, it was like he’d been to the future. A friend of mine said going from Shanghai to LAX was a scary experience because their airport is so modern and ultra-efficient while ours is falling apart,” he said. “China seems to have the can-do spirit America had in the 1930s and 1940s. After all, they built two huge cities in 18 months and we’ve been working on the 405 for four years just to get one more lane on each side that’ll be just as full of cars as the old 405 two minutes after it opens.”
To hear Brooks riff on China is sort of like hearing Paul Krugman doing stand-up at the Comedy Store. “I’m not trying to idealize them, since I wouldn’t want to give up the personal freedoms we have,” he insists. “But I’d take 15% less freedom for 75% more efficiency–and get the 405 finished in two weeks! I guess I’m saying that we’ve become a consumer society instead of an industrial one.
“Wal-Mart is in essence China’s superstore. It’s got all the cheapest stuff you can find and none of it is made here. It’s become too costly to make anything here. If Apple manufactured the iPod in Seattle it would cost $1,200! So it’s China that’s making and it’s us that’s buying, and that worries me, because there are only so many consumer services you can offer. I mean, how many massages do Americans really need?”
In today’s politics, especially in the Republican Party, it is has become impossible to run for the presidency without loudly proclaiming a belief in American exceptionalism. But “Twenty Thirty” pokes huge holes in that myth, starting with the notion that the future still belongs to us.
“The people who seem to be valued the most in America today are the hedge fund billionaires, who don’t produce anything,” Brooks argues. “Our wealthy used to get their riches from making things–railroads, steel and cars. But today people just make money out of money.”
Brooks comes from Hollywood, one of the few remaining American industries that actually makes a product that is exported worldwide. Whether the product is worth bragging about is another story, since the movies that make the most splash globally are so homogenized and stripped of anything identifiably American that they might as well be raw McDonald’s hamburger meat.
But at least movies are a real product, a symbol of an industry that, while largely created by immigrants, has long been a distinctly American form of entrepreneurial energy and artistry. However, in Brooks’ cautionary tale, 2030-era USA is bereft of that brawny spirit of invention. It is a country on the wane, a place where American exceptionalism mostly consists of people talking about how exceptional they are.
Does that make Brooks a pessimist? “I’m guess I’m a concerned optimist,” he says, before taking a deep breath. “Why don’t you make that a very concerned optimist.”