The Muse

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:18

      Lost in Hollywood Albert Brooks, playing a Hollywood screenwriter named Steven Phillips, is going to see Steven Spielberg to pitch a film. Pulling up to the gates of Universal City, he's told by the guard that the pass list doesn't grant him a "drive-on," only a "walk-on." He'll have to park across the street from the studio and walk to Spielberg's building. "But that's nine miles," Phillips grumblingly exaggerates, adding, "Is there anything worse than a walk-on?maybe a crawl-on?" If there's anyone in Hollywood who'd naturally expect to be permitted only to crawl to power, that would be Brooks. But his writer parks and walks?and Brooks directs the scene as if it actually is nine miles to Spielberg's compound. As he trudges through the vast lot, the streets, of course, remain empty except for him; humiliation, like L.A.'s sidewalks, is a solitary hell. A studio tour bus passes and the conductor points him out as someone who hasn't been given a drive-on. If you know Brooks' comedy, you'll have an approximate idea how this downcast odyssey ends. Phillips gets to the appointed building and is ushered in to see what turns out to be a cousin of the great man. Spacy deadbeat Stan Spielberg (Steven Wright) is employed to siphon off some of the hundreds of supplicants who visit his famous relative every day. The surreal chagrin of Phillips' brief encounter with Stan is funny enough to make it one of the few scenes in Brooks' The Muse that bid to linger in memory after the film has done its largely charmless work. But I think I'll probably be more likely to remember that long walk through the Universal lot. Visual and unhurried, it gives us an Albert Brooks who's a bit more Pillsbury Doughboy-like than perhaps either we or he had realized; a comic malcontent who'd like the sugary lumps in his creamy life taken as acidic satire. The scene also stands as an unfortunate emblem of The Muse itself?a sad slog toward unexpected disappointments. If you're like me you'll probably be aware of an odd quasi-sound when you see The Muse. It's the sound of people wanting to laugh, even to the point of chuckling in advance of jokes that, often as not, don't quite pay off. It's a dreary, dispiriting chorus, because you know that people are rooting for Brooks for good reasons. He's a funny guy, droll and intelligent, with enough self-lacerating angst to qualify as an honorary New Yorker. Everyone who's bothered to see all or most of his films, I'd guess, is a fan; I am. And now look at what he's done, instantly rebuking any fan who assumed that no one could satirize Hollywood more acutely or uproariously. The Muse works in a few isolated moments and wisecracks. Otherwise it's a near total washout. The writing is tepid and facile, the direction dull and unfocused, the three central performances?by Brooks, Sharon Stone and Andie MacDowell?so shallow and coyly self-satisfied as to be persistently annoying. What gives? From early in the story, people tell Brooks' screenwriter that he's "lost his edge": that's the crisis that propels the narrative. And guess what? There's nothing more discomfiting for a Brooks admirer than to concur with the cliched verdicts of Hollywood. Could it really be he's joking about having lost his edge without realizing that that's exactly how he comes across? The tale opens with Phillips, who apparently has a long line of successes behind him, being given an award as a humanitarian. Taking the podium, he accepts with a smooth stream of jokes that each get a laugh until the last one: Phillips raises his arms in triumph and exclaims, "I'm the king of the room!" Nobody laughs; the audience?humanitarians!?is too square to get the reference. Can you believe that Brooks starts off by appealing to our shared knowledge of fucking Titanic, as if that makes us hip and gives his satire a biting, with-it edge? This is the place to begin suspecting that the guy really has lost it. And things go downhill from here. Phillips gets let go from his plush studio deal because the bigs think his writing has gone soft. This provokes an instant crisis in which his wife (MacDowell) can offer little help beyond hand-wringing and worried frowns. Fortunately, Phillips has one writer friend (Jeff Bridges) who generously shares the secret of his success. It seems there's an actual Muse (Stone)?you know, one of the nine daughters of Zeus?who helps Hollywood creative types reclaim their inspiration and profitability. The catch is that she's expensive and demanding. Every client has to bring her lavish gifts, jewelry and such. When she takes Phillips on, she first asks to be lodged at the Four Seasons, then decides to move into the Phillips' pool house. For a few seconds, wifey suspects Phillips of having an affair. But once she accepts his explanation of what's going on, there are rewards for her: The Muse helps her convert her flair for baking chocolate chip cookies into a chic, thriving business. Will wifey's success overshadow hubby's slow but gradually successful efforts to concoct a dynamite screenplay? Actually, the real question here is something else: Can you believe that Albert Brooks thinks that jokes about chocolate chip cookies at Spago constitute a bitingly hilarious satire of Hollywood mores? What could he be smoking? There are few things more repellent, I would submit, than rich people who expect you to care about their occupied pool houses. Look at the character Brooks plays here. He belongs to a world cocooned by wealth, privilege and flattery. Lives in a mansion with a beautiful wife and two cute, adoring daughters. Probably pulls down a million or two a year. And we're supposed to care that he's lost his cushy studio deal? We're supposed to root for him to write that big comedy?Jim Carrey at Sea World, something like that?that'll catapult him back on top, where he gets rich churning out crap for the multiplexes? Albert Brooks looks fat. Sleek and porky, he now shows the consequences of comfortable insularity. Back in the early 80s, a tacit mythology attached to him suggested that he could be America's most brilliant comic auteur, a brand-new Preston Sturges or West Coast Woody Allen, if only the Tinseltown powers that be would give him his head. Modern Romance (1981) and Lost in America (1985) were sharp and original enough to justify that optimism. But his subsequent work proved less ambitiously pointed even when it remained agreeably idiosyncratic, and with the sudden nadir that The Muse represents, a new conclusion suggests itself: Brooks' big problem all along, perhaps, wasn't that he was an intellectual outsider in a dismally conformist company town, but that he was an insider who mistook his discomfort for rebellion. You can laugh at Hollywood, but it is fundamentally a corrupt, pernicious and loathsome place. (I've been there recently enough to still have the taste in my mouth.) Any movie that pretends to deal with the movie colony invariably must deal with that perception, which of course is the viewpoint of anyone not enmeshed in Hollywood's own mythology, its seductive web of power and illusion. Robert Altman got a handle on this, after a decade of embittered exile from the majors, in The Player. Even the current, Steve Martin-penned Bowfinger, a broad and genially absurd sendup, has the chutzpah to jab Hollywood's leading pseudo-religion, Scientology. Think clever Albert Brooks might manage a few zingers of his own? On the contrary, The Muse is unrelievedly complacent and insufferably clubby, a misfiled valentine that only a filmmaker enraptured by his own reviews and the wiles of Hollywood could even begin to consider a satire. Its only real audience will be in the business, among those fatuous enough to confuse its toothlessness with trenchancy. Cameos? You want cameos? Well, while the Muse is ensconced in Phillips' pool house, she's visited by two needy former clients who turn out to be Martin Scorsese and James Cameron. Scorsese's lines, like most in Brooks and Monica Johnson's script, are lame (he plans to remake Raging Bull with a thin guy?yuk, yuk), but Marty himself has the electric presence of a ferret on angel dust. And let's face it, he fits the part; he's an icon. But Cameron? Titanic's vainglorious creator wishes he were an icon, doesn't he? He obviously can't face the reality that although a hundred million sapheaded teenage girls care about his movie, nobody really cares about him. Even after his Oscar crowing, he could walk down the street in any city in the world, apart from L.A., and not turn heads. So he does a cameo in The Muse imputing to himself a celebrity that basically exists only in Hollywood, hoping, perhaps, that the world will begin to agree. You can call that funny but I call it pathetic, and the only confirmed Hollywoodite at the moment who looks more pathetic to me than Cameron is Albert Brooks.   The Wounds directed by Srdjan Dragojevic Srdjan Dragojevic's The Wounds, like his previous film, Pretty Village, Pretty Flame, gives us the violent meltdown in the former Yugoslavia from a viewpoint that's young, fevered, Serbian and punkish. Dragojevic says he set out to create "a very cruel and shocking film...that will make A Clockwork Orange seem like a Disney production." It's always nice to see a young filmmaker succeed completely in his aims. I guess. Pinki (Dusan Pekic) and Kraut (Milan Maric) make Al Pacino's Scarface look like the Archbishop of Canterbury at high tea. They are Serbian teen gangstas whom the film follows?via a kaleidoscopic flashback structure?through the years 1991-1996. As their country goes up in flames around them, and their countrymen oscillate between wild exhilaration and black despair, Pinki and Kraut, always the heroes of their own mental movies, learn to rape, steal and murder. This gives an interesting spin to their family lives; Pinki, for instance, teaches his wizened granny to snort coke like a champ, and laughs uproariously at her avidity. But a life of delirious crime also puts a strain on their friendship, as when Kraut turns his gun on Pinki and plugs him full of holes. The tale climaxes after the two boys agree that Pinki will be allowed to repay Kraut in kind, wound for wound, no matter how bloody it gets. They stage the revenge in a graveyard where some of their young friends are buried. Like a hot-splicing of Kusturica and Tarantino, Dragojevic is a dynamic and ferociously talented film craftsman. The visual orchestration of The Wounds, with its endless flurries of dramatic camera angles and precise movements, is as impressive as the film's near-epic scale; and the performances he gets from the two newcomers in the lead roles are little short of phenomenal. But there's a huge distance between being a blazingly brilliant director and any kind of artist?at least if you believe, as I do, that the latter term can't be separated from moral vision. Says Dragojevic: "This is a story about young criminals who I believe have a deep moral right to be violent, even to murder, despite the political unacceptability of this idea... Once during an interview on Belgrade tv I was asked whether I condemn the young Serb generation for its lack of morality and the increase in crime among young people. I answered that I cannot condemn these kids; quite the contrary, I said that it is quite all right for them to rob and steal and they should bust into the houses of those businessmen, politicians and ministers that have become rich during the war, because they have their sneakers, their first trips abroad, summer vacations that these kids have never had, nor will ever have." That kind of thinking does not, needless to say, point the way out of a vicious cycle of violence, retribution and profound civil degradation, any more than it offers something beyond a self-justifying and distractingly hectic view of the Yugoslavian conflict. I hear, though, that his bravura technique has led Dragojevic to a deal with Miramax. Seems to fit, somehow.