Albert Brooks’ first three films as director, co-writer and star – Real Life (1979), Modern Romance (1981) and Lost in America (1985) – are as striking and original as any American comedies since Preston Sturges’ 1940’s heyday. They’ve set an impossibly high standard for his subsequent work. When his later films fail to match up to their peaks, it’s all the more disappointing because we’ve seen just how funny Brooks can be.
Over the course of his own six films, as well as supporting roles in films like Broadcast News and Out of Sight, he has developed a unique comic niche: Brooks is the world’s best backpedaler. All his films feature a moment where he’s told something he refuses to accept, and he tries every conceivable means of talking his way out of it. There’s a scene in Lost in America where Brooks, playing a just-retired advertising executive, attempts to convince an implacable casino manager to return the $100,000 his wife has just gambled away. Brooks begins as a reasonable man, patiently explaining why they should return the money. As he grows more desperate, spinning ridiculous schemes to justify the refund, the comedy escalates deliriously.
Like Woody Allen, Brooks specializes in skewering the neuroses of upper middle class men. The characters he plays are always intelligent, articulate and barely able to function emotionally. But where Allen plays up his cute, puppyish side to soften his persona, Brooks revels in being hard to take. His comic persona is unrelenting: he’s funniest at his most obnoxious.
Which is why Brooks has never moved beyond a cult audience. His last three films – Mother, Defending Your Life and now The Muse - have been self conscious attempts to soften the rough edges of his persona, to lighten the neurosis and the self-absorption in an attempt to court the mainstream. This has weakened his work considerably. Stripped of his harshness, his movies lose their comic drive.
He has also begun to drift towards fantasy: Defending Your Life is about Heaven, while The Muse is a riff on Greek mythology. This undercuts his peculiar strengths; his character requires a realistic platform to launch from. (It’s the unflappable bemusement of the casino manager that makes Brooks’ desperation so funny.) Without real-world situations to combat, Brooks comes to seem less like a comic neurotic than a whiner.
In The Muse, Brooks plays a scriptwriter whose work has lost its edge. Suddenly unemployable, he hits up a successful friend (Jeff Bridges) for help and gains an introduction to a Muse – a daughter of Zeus, on Earth to inspire artists – played by Sharon Stone. She takes him on as a client and we watch his life fall apart as his work improves.
It’s a slight, clever idea, and Brooks takes it about as far as it can go. Stone is surprisingly funny as the impossibly high strung Muse. Her comic timing is impeccable, and she makes the fantastic conceit believable. Brooks uses her whimsical laundry list of necessities (chauffeured limousine, midnight Waldorf salad from Spago’s, suite at the Four Seasons) as a springboard for knowing satire of wealthy, neurotic Angelinos. Like Woody Allen and his beloved Upper West Side, Brooks knows Beverly Hills and the movie industry folk who inhabit it well enough to affectionately skewer them.
The film’s best moments come at the margins, free of the movie’s too-cute premise. Brooks’ early scenes with a rapacious junior studio executive are worthy of Lost in America: the executive provides exactly the foil Brooks needs to bring out his own lunatic best. The scene in which Brooks has a nonsense conversation with a European restaurateur is a funny homage to Toto, the incoherent gigolo of Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story. It’s a dizzying non sequitur of a scene, piling more laughs and sheer delight into ninety seconds of near gibberish than most films manage in ninety minutes. Cameos by James Cameron, Rob Reiner and Martin Scorsese provide hilarious jabs at Hollywood. Scorsese steals the movie in just under a minute, playing the only man in the world who could make Brooks look calm.
The film’s only serious misstep is its dreadful title song by Elton John. His score is unobtrusive and effective for the most part, but to endure the lugubrious ballad he whines over the closing credits is to understand why remote controls have mute buttons.
The Muse isn’t Brooks at his best, only his most palatable. Though this means it’s his blandest film, that’s a relative judgment: Brooks at his weakest still makes for the funniest comedy since Election.