Here's something funny about Albert Brooks that you might not know: He's actually nothing like the paranoid, hypochondriacal, masochistic, obsessive-compulsive characters he plays in his movies. As writer-director of six scathingly satirical farces that suggest self-portraits for featuring himself in the lead roles, Brooks has unfairly suffered the disease of mistaken identity known as Woody Allen Syndrome--the belief that his comedy is a psychological attempt to cure what ails the comedian in real life.
But if his latest movie, The Muse, is a typically excruciating study of a Hollywood screenwriter's downward spiral, it represents another triumph for Brooks in securing studio investment and celebrity participation in a highly personal and idiosyncratic piece of work. Put it this way: Co-star Sharon Stone asked him if she could appear naked in the film. "That's a credit to her, because it wasn't written that way," says Brooks, confidently holding court before a dozen writers with ringside seats for what amounts to a half-hour standup routine. "As an actress, [Stone] said, 'I think if I'm gonna shock the hell out of Andie [MacDowell's character], I should be naked.' And I thought...well, fine [laughs]. Then she said, 'But only Stanley Kubrick can film it!'"
In that joke's self-deprecating punch line lies the running gag of the Brooks oeuvre: A professional man suddenly loses control of his work and his life, forcing him to take desperate measures and bringing him face to face with every unflattering phobia that his success had barely held at bay. (See Real Life, Modern Romance, Lost in America, Defending Your Life, and Mother.) In The Muse, Brooks's Academy Award-nominated screenwriter takes a meeting at Paramount to discuss his latest project (which he describes as a "good" action movie), only to discover that the new boss (Mark Feuerstein) is a smarmy junior exec who cancels the film ("I think you've lost your edge") and informs the writer that his office has been given to Brian De Palma. This sends our hero scurrying for a solution in the form of The Muse (Stone), the self-described daughter of Zeus, who offers to help him conjure a hit in trade for such gratuities as a top-floor suite at the Four Seasons. (Note: The fact that The Muse's distributor has paid to put up reporters in the same hotel should not be mistaken for proof of the critic's own inspirational potential.)
A screwball cross between Sunset Blvd.'s shrewish Norma Desmond and the divine subject of Cézanne's "Eternal Feminine," Stone's well-adorned Muse is seen in the film giving counsel to such A-list auteurs as James Cameron and Martin Scorsese--which in the real world testifies again to Brooks's clout. Just how did he manage to assemble such a high-powered cast? "I have a lot of information on people," he jokes. "No, in fact everybody in this movie took the job on the phone, and they all said yes right away. Scorsese was especially amazing because he does not like to fly. And Jim Cameron, who I didn't know, actually called me from the car. I said, 'So I want you to do this and this, and here's what it entails.' And there was a long pause, until finally he said, 'Just tell me it'll be funny.' And I said, 'It'll be funnier than Titanic.'"
As Brooks the director traffics in the comedy of humiliation, his trademark gift as an actor is in putting a human face on total collapse. Halfway through the new film, as the writer's wife (MacDowell) uses The Muse's entrepreneurial and cookie-baking advice to become "the next Mrs. Fields" (what's worse for an insecure man than having to cede bread-winning duties to his spouse?), Brooks contorts his fleshy face into a bewildered scowl. It's a further credit to the actor's skills that his performance for the press represents the epitome of calm. Appearing well-scrubbed and even handsome in a black polo shirt with long sleeves, his hand resting on an unopened Coke, the 51-year-old Brooks has a habit of looking intently at the slew of spinning tape recorders when he speaks, as if noting the difference between his carefully scripted comedy and this kind of talk-show improv.
How does he manage to stay sane in such a crazy business? someone asks. "I think Hollywood is like some sort of a disease, and I might have had a little bit of immunity when I was born," says Brooks, who was given the name Albert Einstein by a comedian father who died onstage--literally--when his son was only 12. Growing up in Beverly Hills alongside such fellow quick-wits as Carrie Fisher, Charles Grodin, Richard Dreyfuss, and Rob Reiner, the budding humorist changed his surname to Brooks and hit the stage as a standup comic before preparing for Real Life through a string of now-classic shorts that he directed for Saturday Night Live. "Very early on, I sort of understood what was going on in this business--that stars are just people," says Brooks, whose mom is the former actress-singer Thelma Leeds. "I never put anybody up on a pedestal. I mean, if you come from Kansas and you're 25 when you get here, it may be more difficult to understand that concept. For me, it's different: Now, when I go to Kansas, I have problems there."
The director dealt most directly with his roots in 1996's underrated Mother, a movie that culminated Brooks's analytical project so completely that The Muse could in some ways only serve as a footnote--and in some ways does. Still, what's consistent about the new film is its maker's talent for writing intelligently about characters who aren't as smart as he is--which is to say that The Muse critiques the kind of Hollywood screenwriter-for-hire that Brooks himself is not, the kind who would believe in an instant that artistry can be bought and paid for. "We could come up with subjects right now for scripts that would sound hugely commercial," says Brooks, mirroring his character's quick-fix "concept" of writing a script expressly for Jim Carrey. "If you go and have a meeting tomorrow with MGM, and you mention that you have an idea for a comedy with Mike Myers in it, you'll get your money."
In light of the industry's absurd preoccupation with megastars, The Muse works as a pointed satire of the creatively bankrupt filmmaker's longing for the perfect collaborator. But does it also suggest that Brooks--a well-known former ladies' man who describes himself as having been "like Warren Beatty without the sex"--might have found a muse in the mother of his new baby? "When you earn your living making people laugh," Brooks says, "there's this sort of artificial, momentary thing about it, a feeling that people love you for a minute in a very shallow way. And when you have that, it's so great to have one person for real, because otherwise it can feel very lonely and weird. When I used to do standup in front of 10,000 people, and the audience would be laughing, I'd go back to the hotel and I wouldn't have one person to sort of ground myself. So it's just much better being married, and I've never been happier than with having a child. I mean, all the good clichés of parenthood I've found to be completely true."
At this, one journalist among us inquires whether the baby's delivery caused the new dad to "freak out," perhaps imagining a Nine Months-style slapstick comedy that Brooks wouldn't make in a million years. "The head popped out and I cried," Brooks reports, provoking a heartfelt "Awwww" from the members of the press. Then the punch line: "Of course, I was paying by the inch."
The Muse starts Friday, August 27 at area theaters.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.