Oscarless Screenwriter Meets Dominatrix to Hollywood

Albert Brooks’ The Muse , from a screenplay by Mr. Brooks and Monica Johnson, takes a less nihilistic, less condescending view of Hollywood than the critically overpraised Bowfinger and is therefore very likely to be underrated for seeming to be too much en famille , what with its cameo appearances by Cybill Shepherd, Lorenzo Lamas, Jennifer Tilly, Rob Reiner, Wolfgang Puck, James Cameron and Martin Scorsese. Still, The Muse , for all its comic felicities, finally fails to provide the emotional kick of what I consider Mr. Brooks’ two masterpieces: Lost in America (1985) and Mother (1996). On the other hand, the only marginally supernatural premise of The Muse makes it less problematic than Defending Your Life (1991), his weakest previous work, which went overboard in its heavenly whimsy. There is something endearingly earthbound about Mr. Brooks, particularly as an aggrieved intellectual who has been willing to make the necessary compromises to lead a normal life, but who suddenly runs up against the blank wall of a stupid, uncaring system.

Asonce-successful screen-writer Steven Phillips, Mr. Brooks is at his funniest in his early scenes with Mark Feuerstein’s hilariously gloating Josh Martin, a reptilian studio executive who insists that Steven has lost his edge as a screenwriter and must vacate his office by 5 P.M. so that it can be occupied by Brian DePalma. The Brooks-Feuerstein exchanges display the actors’ unique gifts for the almost lost art of increasingly exasperated repartee in an age of deliberately dumbed-down screenplays.

Steven reaches rock bottom as a stone-cold screenwriter in Hollywood when he is humiliatingly forced to walk several miles through the Universal lot for a supposed meeting with Steven Spielberg, only to be confronted by Mr. Spielberg’s underachieving cousin, Stan (played by a morosely indifferent Steven Wright as if he were off his medication). Steven’s forced march to Hollywood oblivion sets up a situation of such comic desperation that the outlandish idea of a muse named Sara, straight from Zeus’ stable to the aid of blocked Hollywood screenwriters, directors and producers, can be plausibly embraced by Steven on the recommendation of his unblocked screenwriter friend Jack Warrick (Jeff Bridges). When Sharon Stone finally materializes as the capricious Sara, the movie takes a sharp turn from satiric realism into a psychological sadism that beats the character of Steven deeper and deeper into the ground.

Sara’s expensive demands on Steven’s time and ever-dwindling finances cause complications with his wife, Laura (Andie MacDowell), first when she suspects he is having an affair, and then when she allows Sara to push her into a successful career baking gourmet cookies. By this time, Sara’s ever-elusive sexuality has begun to cast a shadow over Steven’s marriage more through Laura’s puzzling complicity than Steven’s. Mr. Brooks seems to back away in panic from the lesbian overtones of Laura’s matter-of-fact decision to humor Sara by “bunking” with the muse while Steven sleeps in the guest house. When Laura, however, realizes that Sara teasingly sleeps in the nude, she retreats to the couch for a bad night’s sleep.

Mr. Brooks was probably wise not to venture into a pathological extension of his nebbishy role to same-sex cuckoldry, but he would have been wiser still to avoid the issue altogether. Also, the vague stirrings of male chauvinist unease over Laura’s astounding commercial success as a culinary artist, in contrast to Steven’s ongoing failure, makes him a less likable victim of the system. The marriage itself, with its two annoyingly precocious children, seems somehow out of sync with a paterfamilias whose exquisite wit never falters amid all the provocations and humiliations. A broken-English, fractured conversation with a European hanger-on (Mario Opinato) becomes a symphony of wearily reluctant adjustments of Mr. Brooks to the insistent incomprehension of the language mangler, each successive adjustment getting a bigger laugh than its predecessor until Mr. Brooks walks away with a punch line out of left field.

The Muse can be faulted for its narrative structure and its facile resolution with a trick ending that is not entirely happy. One may quibble further by arguing that Steven’s supposed writer’s block in its Hollywood context may be nothing more than being considered too old to anticipate trends that appeal to ever-younger audiences. Mr. Brooks has always been regarded as a comedian’s comedian, and this can be a curse as well as a blessing, though his writing has never seemed particularly esoteric or inaccessible to me. He remains one of moviedom’s comic treasures, and thus I am willing to give him some slack on The Muse . His inspired one-liners have more than earned it.

The Second Mr. Grant, Not Unlike the First

Kelly Makin’s Mickey Blue Eyes , from a screenplay by Adam Scheinman and Robert Kuhn, would be a virtually unwatchable manifestation of the misguidedly merry mobster syndrome were it not for the stellar presence in the cast of Hugh Grant, who may one day be memorialized in retrospectives as Cary Grant is today. The earlier Grant, it may be remembered, made more than his share of clinkers, but managed more often than not to transcend them with his dazzlingly complex personality, part reticence and part impudence. Our current Mr. Grant is equally complex with his mix of sly insolence and non-narcissistic self-deprecation, and, in my opinion, he is equally dazzling as well. He is admittedly working in a virtual vacuum in Mickey Blue Eyes , but while he is on the screen, which is most of the time, the movie breathes freely with a chucklesome vitality.

As far as the other players and the strenuously contrived plot are concerned, I didn’t much mind them simply because Mr. Grant convinced me that he was performing a more than adequate transitional audition to show that he could do more than play a charmingly brainy Brit. I felt a little sorry for the not-unappealing Jeanne Tripplehorn as Mickey’s love interest and most important mob connection because she was obviously taken along just for the ride. Her Gina Vitale has very little to do until the very end, and then she does a little too much.

The Mafia repertory company is headed by James Caan, who plays Frank Vitale, Gina’s father and owner of “The Le Trattoria” (sic), a gangster-hangout restaurant, and Burt Young as a surprisingly restrained Vito Graziosi. Vito is both a godfather type and patron of his son Johnny’s (John Ventimiglia) paintings with their seemingly sacrilegious mixtures of underworld chic and heavenly piety. Mr. Grant, as a reputable art auctioneer, is forced by his attachment to Gina to put up Johnny’s painting for a mob-fixed auction. The subsequent complications that transform Michael Felgate into Mickey Blue Eyes play less tediously than they would read in cold print because of the emblematic mugs and demotic banter of such amiable toughs as Mr. Caan, Mr. Young, Joe Viterelli, Tony Darrow, Paul Lazar and Mr. Ventimiglia. These hobo-like hoodlums ride on the rails from picture to picture providing instant gangland atmosphere with every broadened vowel and exploding consonant in their street dialect.

The biggest laughs in the movie come from a scene only vestigially connected with the plot, involving a misplaced Chinese cookie and an unbilled elderly Chinese actress who gets the biggest laughs I have heard so far this year. There is a lesson here in gag construction that I would recommend to every Hollywood screenwriter. If I seem overly preoccupied with the art of humor these days, it may be because I am getting tired of sitting stone-faced amid all the cheap laughs engendered by the gross-out specialists. I was less impressed with the feeble wit involved in Mr. Grant’s expressing mild surprise at a restaurant with the redundant sign “The Le Trattoria” and reprised at the final fadeout with “The The End.” Only trivia hounds can rejoice.

The Holy Trinity Of Counterculture

Chuck Workman’s The Source has clearly bitten off more than it can chew and digest comfortably, but it is still well worth seeing if for nothing else than a confirmation of Morris Dickstein’s recent contention that the counterculture and various self-proclaimed postmodern movements in the arts began in the supposedly conformist 50′s and not as late as the hippie incursions of the late 60′s. Mr. Workman goes even further back to the 40′s with the first meeting of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, who form for Mr. Workman the holy trinity of the counterculture that persists to this day in some form or other.

The most interesting element of Mr. Workman’s massive assemblage of the visual and aural memorabilia of several decades are the expertly impassioned readings of the writings of Kerouac (by Johnny Depp), Burroughs (by Dennis Hopper) and Ginsberg (by John Turturro). Listening to much of this writing, which, in the case of Kerouac at least, Truman Capote once dismissed as “typing,” one recognizes a distinctive sound of an era without becoming fully convinced that it will survive as readable literature on the printed pages and computer screens of the next millennium.

Mr. Workman seems at times to be trying to reconcile the drug-ridden hedonistic bohemian currents of the counterculture with its predominantly left-wing politics. But even if one doesn’t buy the whole message, much of the material is riveting.