“I’m going to give away, I think, $50 million within the next year.”
Watching the trailer for the recent documentary Dear Mr. Brody, it’s hard not to think of the early ‘80s film Max Dugan Returns. Starring Jason Robards, Marsha Mason, and a young Matthew Broderick, the film was a whimsical tale of a divorced mother struggling to provide a good life for her teenaged son when a stranger from her past (the titular Max Dugan) enters out of nowhere with a suitcase full of money and the answer to the family’s problems. It’s a sweet film, full of the kind of charm and escapism many of the romantic sort crave. The main question that lingers throughout the film, though, is whether or not Max Dugan really is the answer to the characters’s problems.
One of the reasons I bring up this oft-forgotten gem of a film is because it, too, has a magical, dreamlike quality and inspires people to consider the possibilities of the every day. Dear Mr. Brody also ponders a very similar question: Is the documentary’s main subject a superhero, a genie, a madman, or perhaps all of the above?
In 1970, Michael Brody Jr., the wealthy 21-year-old heir to a margarine company, publicly announced that he intended to give away his entire fortune after growing disgusted with a society that does not take care of its people. He instructed those needing help to write to him detailing how much money they need and for what. This act set off a wave of letters from around the country. Nearly 50 years later, the assistant to a film producer came across the boxes of letters with the intent to open all of them.
Dear Mr. Brody could have easily stuck to the regular talking head format in order to tell its story, and it does for some of the time. But aside from the vintage footage (most of which follows the enigmatic Brody), filmmaker Keith Maitland brilliantly uses animated sequences to illustrate events. The magazine collage touches and early ‘70s cartoons help to not only transport us to the era, but also give the film a sort of spunky, almost madcap quality. These touches are wonderfully juxtaposed with the recreation of some of the letters themselves, which provide a haunting cinematic quality, though they don’t do much to accentuate the plight of the letter writer.
It could be said that Dear Mr. Brody is the quintessential American story: It’s a document of the fragile society that ushered in the 1970s and one man’s reaction to what it devolved into. In many of the letters, you hear from people struggling in the midst of schizophrenia, broken homes, and poverty. But you also hear tales of inspiration and determination from people who want help to make it in a world where they feel they’ve been forgotten. It’s hard—in fact, near impossible—not to feel moved by so many everyday people who felt that Brody was their chance at something they always felt was out of reach. When we finally see some of these people in the present day rereading the letters they or their loved ones once wrote, a cathartic, reflective and healing quality emerges.
One of the more obvious goals of Dear Mr. Brody is to uncover who the man himself really was. In tracing Brody’s origins and upbringing, a portrait begins to emerge, one that shows him as a young man of means who was also a product of his time. Was he a madman or an empath? The answer lies somewhere in the middle as his wild personality led him from one escapade to another. It’s true that some of his actions may have been driven by drug trips, like many of his contemporaries, but the combination of the emotion he felt from the letters and the unavoidable madness of the world around him led him to truly believe he could make a difference.
Watching these historical events play out today, the parallels are sadly evident. What Michael Brody attempted back in 1970 doesn’t necessarily feel out of place in today’s world when it comes to far-fetched schemes and headline-grabbing stunts—how a person feels about what Brody attempted to do solely depends on how they look at the state of the world around them and their level of empathy. Dear Mr. Brody could have easily focused on the Max Dugan-like figure of the film, but in exploring how Brody’s actions had such poignant effects, it actually ends up being a testament to hope. There’s undeniable humanity in the acknowledgments finally given, and in finally hearing the voices of legions of people who felt invisible in a tumultuous society.