The Blues

The Blues

The Blues

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Aug. 27 1999 9:30 PM

The Blues

In The Muse, Albert Brooks makes a dispirited (and dispiriting) satire.

The Muse
Directed by Albert Brooks
October Films

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One thing that separates intuitive artists from hacks and "players" is their difficulty doing even mediocre work when their cylinders aren't firing. In the absence of true inspiration, they can't fall back on a crafty understanding of what the audience wants because they don't really know what the audience wants. They follow their instincts and pray that they'll connect. When they don't, the result is something like The Muse, which left me more dispirited than any movie in ages has. Albert Brooks is my hero, and I don't like the thought of people seeing this dud satire and concluding that he has lost his way. More to the point, I don't like the thought that he has lost his way.

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At least The Muse tackles this subject head on--the loss of one's way in a culture as venal as Hollywood's. The protagonist, Steven Phillips (Brooks), is a middle-aged screenwriter whose three-picture deal is terminated by a callow executive (Mark Feuerstein) who tells him he no longer has his "edge." When other studios show no interest, Steven goes to cry on the shoulder of an old friend, Jack Warrick (Jeff Bridges), a vastly successful writer-producer. Tanned and beaming after a string of recent triumphs, Jack decides to introduce his old buddy to his "muse," Sarah (Sharon Stone)--a goddess of inspiration supposedly descended from the ancient Greeks. Sarah, we learn, played a part in the latest hits of Rob Reiner, Martin Scorsese, and James Cameron (all of whom show up to pay homage and bring expensive gifts). Although he's incredulous, Steven can't afford to pass up a chance to get his "edge" back, especially with a wife (Andie MacDowell) and kids and a house in Pacific Palisades to maintain. In no time, Sarah orders him to put her up in a $1,700-a-night suite on a high floor of the Four Seasons (she's an ultrasensitive sleeper), provide a limousine, and be ready to work at whatever hour she feels the urge to inspire him.

In the first half-hour, The Muse plays a little flatly, but that's not too troubling--artful flatness has always been a component of Brooks' genius. The camera stares, unblinking, at Steven in conversation with uncomprehending or contemptuous superiors. The message is that there's no escape from the ignominy, not even through the (often lame) one-liners he employs to win them over. When he goes for a meeting with "Mr. Spielberg," Steven is denied "drive-on" privileges; the camera holds on him as he makes the long, grueling hike through the studio compound, and a passing tour bus driver draws attention to his lowly "walk-on" status. Then he finds the meeting is with Stan Spielberg (scraggly-haired Steven Wright), who hasn't seen his famous cousin in a year and doesn't even know what he's supposed to be doing there. This is familiar Brooksian territory: impotence prolonged and stylized until it turns into Theater of the Absurd. The universe exists to humiliate Brooks' protagonists, to remind them of the precariousness of everything that they'd smugly assumed was fixed--the steadiness of a job, the permanence of a relationship, the support of a mother, the benign regard of the universe.

In The Muse, however, the masochism feels a little too reflexive, and the picture's flatness gets flatter by the minute. Brooks is baking with dead yeast. As it turns out, the movie isn't about the mystery of creativity but rather the New Age idiocy of people who'd accept the idea of a muse--or, by extension, of gurus or smart drugs or the power of cabala. For some reason, Brooks and his co-writer, Monica Johnson, have made their protagonist an unbelievably uninteresting man--a mopey, scattershot hack. Brooks might disagree. He told Gavin Smith in Film Comment that Steven is a "good screenwriter going through the exact period that tons of screenwriters are. Ninety-nine percent of writers write [for hire]. ... They all get scared when the executives become younger than their children; they get worried that they're not going to get those jobs anymore, so they start writing things that maybe they don't love or they're not close to." But Brooks hasn't provided any evidence that Steven was ever a decent writer. His screenplay ideas in the company of the muse are pathetically feeble, and when she encourages them--and when they find favor with Steven's agent and the executives who'd previously spurned him--the point seems to be that everyone in the film industry is a moron.

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B rooks, who is often accused (wrongly) of playing himself, has left himself too far out of The Muse. At least I hope he has: How else to account for this bland, pasty, not terribly funny protagonist? The heroes of Real Life (1979), Modern Romance (1981), and Lost in America (1985) have their jerky sides (emotionally squeamish viewers tend to find them repellent), but they also have compensatory gifts--chiefly Brooks' urgent babble, in which pleas are made and then restated and then turned inside out in a way that brilliantly (and hilariously) distills neurotic thought processes. His advertising executive in Lost in America has zero insight into himself, but he's still an idealist who boldly attempts to live out the escapist fantasies of his generation: He has--as buffoons go--enormous stature. With his next film, Defending Your Life (1991), Brooks tried to make his alter ego more palatable to a mass audience--to seem "vulnerable" instead of "insecure." (See my Slate review of Brooks' 1996 movie Mother for the quotation.) The result was often charming, but the upbeat, go-for-it ending felt simple-minded. Brooks' best scenes operate on an X-ray level of honesty, so that shortcuts, formulas, easy ways out of dramatic jams--stuff that slicker filmmakers can get by with--seem in his work embarrassingly exposed.

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Lost inAmerica is a road movie that suggests the impossibility of travel; perhaps Brooks conceived of The Muse as a movie about the creative spirit that would subversively suggest the impossibility--at least in Hollywood--of creation. That might have worked if his characters showed signs of having deeper yearnings, the way they do in many of Paul Mazursky's Los Angeles-set satires, so that there would be some tension between what they think they want and what they actually need. But the characters in The Muse are dull-witted materialists, and limp encounter follows limp encounter until the movie seems populated by pod people. A hint that something is off comes early, when Steven receives a "humanitarian" award. (A nice touch: It's presented by Cybill Shepherd, who did some of the most attractive scenes of her career opposite Brooks in Taxi Driver, 1976.) Steven gives a winning, perhaps too self-deprecating speech, then holds his plaque high and crows, "I'm king of the room!" And no one laughs--the audience stares at him, puzzled. Brooks has spent too much time by himself if he thinks people in Los Angeles wouldn't get that joke; even the non-English-speaking busboys would be cackling.

How is Sharon Stone at comedy? That's a trick question, because her best performance, in Basic Instinct (1992), was essentially a comic turn--a lusty, glittery-eyed sendup of film noir femmes fatales. Here she starts promisingly, looking odd and imposing in her caftans, childishly impervious to the absurdity of her demands. But she's heavy-spirited, and it isn't long before she runs out of invention and starts pulling goofy faces--like the one where she sucks a drink through a straw and rolls her eyes skyward like a distracted 5-year-old. She isn't mercurial enough to be funny: She's just a narcissistic dope, and you come to feel contempt for anyone who'd swallow her bull. Stone's scenes with MacDowell--whom she inspires to bake cookies--are the deadest that Brooks has ever directed, and his own with MacDowell are only marginally more lively. (If you want an actor to flesh out an underwritten character, don't hire MacDowell, who tends to sound as if she learns her lines phonetically.) Jeff Bridges does a relaxed and confident turn, but he's acting with his tan. The only scene that completely works is between Brooks and an Italian guy (Mario Opinato) who doesn't understand a word he says--an exhilarating throwback to the radio-comedy days of Brooks' dad, Harry Einstein (also known as Parkyakarcas).

Since I saw The Muse, I've been struggling to figure out why it went so wrong--why the muse deserted the movie's maker. Has Brooks, like Steven, lost his edge? Maybe the reasons aren't so dire. Brooks obviously shares his protagonist's insecurity about his position in the industry (in common with Steven, he never knows if he'll get the money to make another film), but the two have little in common where it really counts--artistically. They barely overlap. From the start, Brooks' impulses have taken him to the source of his darkest anxieties. As a stand-up comic, he was less interested in jokes than in the desperate, needy impulse behind the jokes. As a writer and director, he has been less preoccupied with gags than with the fear and helplessness out of which they spring. How could he possibly be inspired by Steven Phillips, who thinks of nothing but writing a summer blockbuster comedy set in a ramshackle aquarium and starring Jim Carrey? I'm not saying that Brooks doesn't dream of being popular and having status--only that he'd have to do it his way, working outward from the bone. Maybe it's reassuring that The Muse is so bad, since a lot of other people could have made it (and made it better). Maybe Brooks' muse is showing him what happens when you satirize people who are so far beneath you.

David Edelstein is the chief film critic for New York magazine and a film critic for NPR’s Fresh Air.