This review for “Dear Mr. Brody” was first published March 4 after its release on-demand and in U.S. theaters. It premieres Thursday on Discovery+.
At the dawn of the 1970s, the North Pole briefly faced some stiff competition as a wish repository from a floppy-haired, peace-loving, guitar-playing trust fund kid named Michael J. Brody. Heir to a margarine fortune, Brody announced shortly after his 21st birthday that he’d give away most of his $25 million to anyone who asked — as a gift for the needy, a sign of rich-in-life contentment (he’d just gotten married) and a down payment on more love in a wartorn, unequal world.
The largely forgotten story of the “hippie millionaire,” whose Scarsdale home, phone line, and Manhattan business address (all given out freely by Brody) were flooded with recipient hopefuls, is only part of the weird, wonderful and woeful retelling that is Keith Maitland’s engrossing documentary “Dear Mr. Brody.”
Maitland’s previous film “Tower,” which heart-stoppingly recounted the University of Texas campus killings in 1966, remains one of the best documentaries of the past decade, and as another imaginative slice of history, memory and contemporary applicability, this one is a more than worthy follow-up.
Even if you’re unfamiliar with this blip in the timeline of eccentric beneficence, paying attention to the last 50 years would tell you that Brody’s pie-in-the-sky mission to change the world didn’t pan out. But Maitland’s film is about more than one big-dreaming guy giving away his cash, although his life was plenty eye-opening, and not without its own element of unaddressed deprivation. Brody’s wife Renee is one of the film’s interviewees, and the picture she paints of their whirlwind courtship — from being his hashish dealer to his jetted-to-Jamaica bride, and then straight into the maelstrom of the giveaway mania and everything that happened after — is vivid and heartbreaking.
Brody’s charity carousel and youthful energy were splashy enough to attract not only cash-hungry mobs but news crews, investigative reporters, and producer Ed Pressman (who initially envisioned Richard Dreyfuss heading his never-made film version). How “Dear Mr. Brody” counterbalances that story is to take us inside this wannabe Santa’s mailbags, to the boxes of pleading missives that remained unopened, sitting for decades in Pressman’s storage unit until the filmmakers got access to a trove of them through Pressman’s producing assistant Melissa. (Both she and Pressman are interviewed onscreen.)
Whether they’re read aloud, shown on camera, or narrated via recreated scenes (a technique Maitland also deployed in “Tower”), what these highly personal letters offer throughout the film is an unparalleled snapshot, an archive of need and want, of lives on the margins energized by the promise of a way out and maybe even up. In their affecting details, they’re relevant to the desperation coursing through the struggling America of today, as is another contemporary phenomenon reflected in the inspiration to write them: billionaires trying to win our affection with flashy (and sometimes false) largesse.
People mailed Brody hospital bills, photos, drawings, poems, songs, handmade items, whatever they thought would trigger him to open that checkbook. But most curiously, these letters told and left behind stories — of inequality, fear, hopelessness, desire, and exposing recognizable worlds of sexism, racism and class — that would make anyone wonder what happened to the writers.
The empathetic Maitland tracked down as many as he could for his purposes, taking us to a handful of them (or their descendants). These moments of an unsealed, sometimes unknown past, or of who someone used to be, read for the first time on camera, are as emotionally charged as you can imagine.
Concurrently, as Maitland provides pockets of warmth and humanity in the legacies of a handful of letter-writers, he relays through archival footage and interviews the fallout for Brody himself when the sheer volume of outstretched hands and scrutinizing eyes became too much for him to handle. It’s a story of loneliness, self-medication, jumbled sincerity, and harsh reality no less poignant for being a case of neediness from the wealthy end of the “Dear Mr. Brody” spectrum.
One thing seems clear, however — from the ways this documentary engagingly brings the past to light through a prism of interconnectedness to its exploration of problems behind coexistence and mutual aid that we continue to face, there’s still a helluva fictionalized movie to be made about the mysterious, innocent and troubled Mr. Moneybags who briefly ignited hope in a hurting world. So Tom Holland, go see “Dear Mr. Brody,” absorb the possibilities, then call Ed Pressman.