Albert Brooks: West Coast Woody Allen

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The Girl Can Green-Light

Salvaging what remains of the worst summer I can remember, I am off to greener pastures where, if I’m lucky, I will not see a cell phone, a pierced tongue, a computer, a rock video, a traffic jam or a single motion picture released after 1950. Before I go, here are a few notes on how to get through the rest of August. First, don’t miss The Muse , a charming broadside against the insanity of Hollywood by writer-director Albert Brooks that establishes Sharon Stone as a new goddess of comedy who will surprise and delight you despite what you think of her already.

The Muse is a fresh rumination on the malady that plagues every neurotic hack in the movie business: writer’s block. Mr. Brooks, who looks like an aging schnauzer desperate for an air-conditioned kennel, stars as an Oscar-nominated Hollywood screenwriter who, in the hilariously authentic opening sequence, is being presented with an industry humanitarian award at the Beverly Hilton Hotel-a sure sign of career jeopardy for that much-maligned Tinseltown habituĂ©. In Mr. Brooks’ own words, it is “like being a eunuch at an orgy.”

“Daddy, what is a humanitarian?” asks his daughter.

“It’s someone who’s never won the Oscar.” It is also someone who must endure every insulting indignity dished out by studio moguls whose offices are decorated with props from hit movies they’ve never seen in a town full of obnoxious, arrogant toads with no talent of their own. Mr. Brooks knows them well. It’s a miracle they still green-light his scripts. In a town where you’re a has-been at 30, he actually still works and lives there. A West Coast Woody Allen.

His whimsical alterego who keeps popping up in his films to keep the rest of us amused and horrified (do serious and creative filmmakers really have to take meetings with Quentin Tarantino?) is this time called Steven Phillips. The morning after he is presented with an industry consolation prize for life achievement, he’s fired and told to be out of the studio by 5 P.M. (Brian De Palma needs his office space.) Worse still, his latest screenplay is rejected, he’s informed by a snotty executive who should be a parking lot attendant at Spago. He’s lost his “edge,” and the brats who run the town accuse him of being “past his prime.” In the supreme demoralization, his “drive-on” studio pass is even replaced by a “walk-on.”

Suddenly unemployable, with an expensive wife (Andie MacDowell) to support and a mortgage on his swimming pool, this poor sap turns for advice to his best friend, a hugely successful writer of trashy blockbusters (Jeff Bridges). His friend reluctantly shares the secret of his own inspiration-a gorgeous, mysterious Greek muse who, for a steep price and gigantic perks, can guide any flagging career to heights of greatness.

Enter Sharon Stone. Claiming to be one of the nine daughters of Zeus, she dispenses advice to a secret society of Hollywood success stories who depend on her for inspiration in exchange for a slice of the moon. Mr. Bridges’ character credits her for all of his creative ideas. (Rob Reiner introduced them at a party.) While the muse takes him on, Mr. Brooks takes on all of her expenses, which include a $1,700-a-day suite at the Four Seasons, special dietary cuisine at all hours of the night, a limo and daily gifts from Tiffany’s, just to show good faith.

Before long, she’s redecorating the guesthouse, accepting late-night phone calls and emergency visits from Martin Scorsese and, with the aid of Wolfgang Puck, turning the wife into a millionaire baker of gourmet cookies. As the capricious and demanding intruder takes over his life and even pushes him out of his own marital bed, Ms. Stone becomes “the muse who came to dinner” and Mr. Brooks (or Steven Phillips, as he calls himself) grows more paranoid and hysterical. Meanwhile, Los Angeles is depicted as an alien planet of safe isolation chambers connected by miles of bumper-to-bumper freeway traffic standing still in a clogged artery of sweating jerks trying to establish a sense of reality on car phones. Anyone who has ever spent any time in this hothouse of delusion will surrender with laughter to the scene in which Steven Spielberg reluctantly takes a meeting with Mr. Brooks for old times’ sake, then sends his cousin, Stan Spielberg, instead.

Eventually, The Muse must decide what kind of movie it is and what Mr. Brooks wants to say, and the comic buildup dissipates somewhat in the resolution. The script that the muse finally inspires the screenwriter to create is a comedy about a doofus who drills a hole in the ground to build an aquarium and strikes oil-a sort of Jim Carrey meets The Beverly Hillbillies . Naturally, in today’s market, it goes through the roof at shopping malls. But who is the muse? To find out, you have to see the movie.

Loopy, luscious, maddening and as crazy as a germ that just caught penicillin, Ms. Stone is a cross between Goldie Hawn and Jean Harlow. She is perfect for the role of a wild card with trailer-trash hair who cheats Hollywood at its own smug game because Hollywood has cheated her so often. Clearly, she should have been playing comedy roles all along. Mr. Brooks mines her hidden talents with precision and humor, and she gives her all in a performance that is both daffy and delirious.

Even the boring Andie MacDowell seems less monotonous and monochromatic than usual. And there are roguish cameos by Cybill Shepherd, Lorenzo Lamas, Jennifer Tilly and James Cameron as well as the previously mentioned Mr. Scorsese, Mr. Puck and Mr. Reiner. It’s remarkable how gracefully willing they seem to poke fun at themselves. But why the hell not? The world in which they live and work exists for the purpose of lampoon. No matter how insane you depict the movie industry, the truth is even crazier. This is the point of The Muse : In Hollywood, everything is possible for five minutes, and you can always find someone who will believe anything , until they see the grosses.

Albert Brooks: West Coast Woody Allen