What actor-comedian has ever readapted himself as often and as well as Albert Brooks has?

Albert Brooks in Drive. ()
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Simon Abrams

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Much has been made of George Clooney’s transformation into a harried care-giver and father of three in The Descendants. But really, if were there were any justice, 2011 would have been more widely recognized as the year of Albert Brooks.

Brooks has reinvented himself a number of times over the course of his storied career, not just as a comedian and actor but as a filmmaker, best-selling novelist and even voice-actor. But when we think of Brooks, we still think of the totally self-absorbed persona he projects in such movies as Modern Romance and Real Life.

Today, the man tweets at a furious rate, has cranked out a rather funny book and still infrequently voice-acts for "The Simpsons" (he resurfaced last year on the show to reprise his role as supervillain Hank Scorpio). On top of that, Brooks really stunned audiences in Drive, Nicolas Refn’s adaptation of James Sallis’s novel, which screens this Sunday night during the Film Society at Lincoln Center’s “An Evening with Albert Brooks.” Movieline posits that Brooks has Oscar potential for his role as a murderous, eyebrow-less crook. Is this the same Brooks that played the driver in the prologue to the "Twilight Zone" movie?

In Drive, Brooks plays Bernie Rose, a volatile mob boss and retired maker of, as he puts it, “action films, sexy stuff. One critic called them 'European.' I thought they were shit.”

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Bernie is acerbic and very particular, grousing over the dearth of fortune cookies and chopsticks in his order of Chinese food when he’s first introduced to us. This makes him the perfect foil for Driver, Ryan Gosling’s anal, almost-mute antihero. Director Nicolas Refn (the Pusher trilogy, Bronson) makes sure that we see that Driver has an unabashed nasty streak to match Rose’s (elevator scene, anyone?), making Brooks’ character the standard-setter for sadistic behavior that the normally mild-mannered Gosling has to match. Which brings us back to our central question: We are talking about the same Albert Brooks as the one who was in Taxi Driver, right?

In Modern Romance, Brooks plays Robert Cole, a film editor and klutzy egomaniac who tries to get over a messy break-up by jogging, buying tacky stuffed animals, and even taking quaaludes and then phoning a girl he met briefly at a party. He frankly tells this acquaintance that he has “deep feelings for her,” and then asks her to go out with him. “I didn’t even think you liked me,” the woman replies, clearly interested in the attention, but for reasons that may forever remain a mystery. Brooks quietly scoffs to himself at this remark, cupping the phone drunkenly so the woman can’t hear him. He then tells her not to get paranoid. “I have love for you, OK? OK?!” Then he asks her where she lives. And he begs her for her address. “This is going to be special,” he says, while bobbing his head dizzily.

As in his performance in Modern Romance, it’s the little mannerisms and tics in Brooks’ performance in Drive that marks it as one of the best things to have happened in film last year. Take the scene in which Brooks has a heart-to-heart talk with Driver, or as close to one that one sociopath can have with another. Bernie has agreed to loan Shannon (Bryan Cranston), Driver's boss and good friend, the money needed for Driver to enter professional races and win both Shannon and Bernie a lot of money. In this scene, Bernie approaches Driver casually, even jovially. He asks him how he's doing; Driver, not realizing that he's supposed to inspire confidence in his new patron, replies tersely. Bernie then tries again to prime the pump: will Driver be ready for the race? He hopes so, yes.

The acting feat that really makes the scene is that Brooks' Bernie is clearly exasperated, but in a schmoozey kind of way. He still looks as harmless as your uncle at a family get-together after he's had too much drink and is muttering loudly to himself in the corner of the den while the rest of the family nervously waits for desert to be served.

Then Bernie tells Driver that he hopes that he doesn't screw up because Shannon, well, “He doesn’t have a lot of luck." He says this with a syrupy, paternal tone to his voice. And he tells Driver, with this seemingly sincere air of concern, about the last time Shannon didn't have a lot of luck. And how it resulted in him hobbling around with a leg brace. We know he's good friends with the guy that did this to him. So when Bernie says, "Anything you need, just call me," it's got a weird taste to it. It's a fatherly solicitation from a guy who just threatened to break Ryan Gosling's legs.

This scene is funny and surreal on a number of levels, like that one bit in Modern Romance in which Robert, distraught, tries to call the girl he just broke up with from a phone booth. He's waiting while an elderly man paranoically rants in a monotone to whomever he's talking to that he's sure she's stepping out on him. The guy concludes the call by moaning quietly, "He’s over there right now, isn’t he? Please, I wasn’t born yesterday."

That bitter codger was supposed to be Robert/Brooks of the future. But in the time that has passed since then, Brooks has instead become Bernie, a guy who shoves forks into eye sockets and slits veins while whispering to his victim, “Don’t worry, don’t worry! There’s no pain. It’s done!” Brooks is still extroverted, smooth-talking and (deceptively?) mild-mannered. But the Albert Brooks in Drive isn't the one you thought you knew.