Please Note: “Dear Mr. Brody” was selected as part of the canceled 2020 Telluride Film Festival program. With the express consent of the representatives of the filmmakers, we present the review of the film here.
As 1970 began, America was starting to grapple with the souring peace and love vibe of the 1960s. Even though 1969 brought the swell of patriotic pride with Apollo 11 moon landing and the unprecedented pilgrimage to Woodstock, the nation was mired in the unending Vietnam War, and before the year was out, Richard Nixon would be elected President. Moreover, facing a recession that would only get worse, households across the nation were gripped with uncertainty and worry. It was an era rightfully boiling with outrage and anger, but with no shortage of oddballs and dreamers too. Thus, it was fertile ground for 21-year-old, newly minted, oleomargarine multi-millionaire heir Michael James Brody Jr. to drum up some hope by announcing he was giving away every penny to anyone who needed it. This fascinating, yet forgotten chapter of history is brought to life in Keith Maitland’s captivating documentary, “Dear Mr. Brody.” It’s a story that’s so wonderfully strange, funny, and dark, it’s a movie worthy of Billy Wilder. In fact, it could’ve been.
It’s perhaps not a surprise that an unlikely story such as this starts in a storage locker. A few years ago Melissa Robyn Glassman, who works for legendary producer Edward R. Pressman (whose name is on everything from “Sisters” and “Badlands” to “The Crow” and “American Psycho”) stumbled across some boxes labeled “BRODY Letters.” This would be the first layer in an onion that would resurrect a tale that grabbed headlines around the world, yet whose news cycle barely lasted a couple of weeks. On January 10, 1970, having just returned from his honeymoon, Michael Brody Jr. arrived in New York in a chartered jet from Jamaica and announced his intention to give away his entire $25 million fortune. All you had to do was reach out with a request, and Brody made himself easy to find, providing his home address and telephone number. What happened next was about as close to going viral as you could get in 1970. Brody was mobbed on the street, people flocked to his home in Scarsdale, the press was on him almost every moment, and he was flooded with thousands upon thousands of letters. The tornado of attention also landed Brody, who dreamed of a music career, a record deal, and even an appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” He was enough of a phenomenon that two different movies wound up in the works: Pressman’s picture, “The Ultimate Gift,” in which Richard Dreyfuss was bandied about to star, with the producer wish-listing Billy Wilder to direct; and another project written by Brody’s former high school classmate Don Enright, who specialized in B-movies and wanted John Travolta to take the lead. By this point, you might be asking, what happened to the money? Well, everyone else was wondering too.
What starts as a story about well-meaning, peace-and-love-driven largesse quickly morphs into a cautionary portrait of hubris. The suddenly wealthy Brody was a man who was both desperate for love, but also resented the affection that was fueled by his seeming generosity. As the days wore on, and the attention on him intensified, Brody’s behavior became aggressive, delusional, desperate, and humbled, sometimes switching from moment to moment. Behind the public display was a truth that was far more complicated, and a person much more damaged. In many ways, his public displays are eerily reminiscent of Kanye West over the past few years. Just like the rapper, Brody operated from an extreme bubble of privilege, but it became increasingly apparent — albeit in hindsight — that his declarations that he would help the world and end the war in Vietnam were driven by mental health problems, exacerbated by reckless drug use, and enablers around him who either couldn’t or wouldn’t intervene.
The multi-sided shape of Brody’s life, whose contours seemed to change depending on how you looked at it, is sympathetically handled by Maitland. As unbelievable as some of the revelations across the documentary can be, the filmmaker maintains an even balance, drawing out the historical details, providing context from those who were there (including Brody’s wife at the time Renee Dubois), and most winningly, shining a light on just some of the innumerable letters that not only went unanswered but unopened. Maitland reunites some of these heartbreaking pleas for help, sent with a longshot chance of getting a reply from Brody, with the original letter writers. The results are profoundly touching and deeply moving, running across racial and class demographics that serves as a reminder that more of your neighbors may need help than you might imagine. 1970 is not so different than 2020, except that it would be pure science fiction to believe any millionaire or billionaire today would even think to give up even a fraction of their fortune to try and truly change the world, except perhaps for their own benefit.
Four years ago, Maitland released “Tower,” a documentary about a mass shooting that was relayed through animation. With “Dear Mr. Brody,” aside from some occasionally cheap-looking reenactments that have mixed success, the director keeps things traditional, blending archival footage with interviews. Maitland knows that “Dear Mr. Brody” is ultimately about people, who need help, in a country where it’s very easy to be forgotten. That doesn’t need dressing up, and it’s those stories that the film lets rise to the top. Michael Brody Jr. was just one self-proclaimed Messiah in a long line of them, a huckster who believed the hype he generated. But underneath that were real people, aching for acknowledgment, and an opportunity to receive relief. “Dear Mr. Brody” finally gives some of those voices a place to be heard, and four decades later, their echo remains stirringly resonant. [B+]