Albert Brooks’ THE MUSE (1999) – Comedy inspired by the gods

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I will admit my bias right up front: If I had to make a list of reasons I’m glad I’m alive, comedian-writer-director Albert Brooks would surely be in my top ten.

Sadly, after a long career of brilliant stand-up comedy and somewhat hit-and-miss (but mostly hit) movie comedies, Brooks is still considered a cult comedian whose humor often seems a little too inside. But if you’re burned out by in-your-face comedies, I strongly encourage you to see Brooks’ The Muse. It’s gratifyingly intelligent and superbly hilarious to boot.

Brooks plays Steven Phillips, a Hollywood screenwriter who, as the movie opens, is being presented with a humanitarian award. (When one of his daughters asks what a humanitarian is, he replies, “It’s a man who never won an Oscar.”) The award is the last good thing to happen to Steven for a while.

Trying to peddle his latest script, he is told by many disparate parties that he has “lost his edge.” The movie’s first half-hour milks huge laughs from Steven’s desperate attempts at script-hustling, as he moves further and further down the Hollywood food chain.

Then Steven happens upon Jack Warrick (Jeff Bridges), an old Hollywood friend whose career is on a dramatic upswing. Jack reluctantly shares his secret with Steven. He has a muse — not an imagined source of inspiration, but a real live goddess who gives him the help he needs. Jack arranges a meeting between Sarah the muse (played to the hilt by Sharon Stone) and Steven.

The Muse, like the best modern-day comedies, is almost anti-high concept. Trying to explain its appeal usually bungles it for anyone who isn’t in on the laugh. Brooks is simply one of the great comedians–for my money, right up there with Chaplin and all the other comedy icons you just have to trust will give you a good time. He’s also a subtle, underrated director who gets huge laughs from the simplest camera set-ups. (Witness Steven’s trek through a movie lot as he attempts to meet Steven Spielberg.)

Brooks must have had his own muse to get such an inspired performance from Sharon Stone, whose appeal has been lost on me until now. She usually comes off as self-obsessed. But here, that can only be an advantage. Stone’s best moments are Sarah’s slack-jawed reactions to Steven’s cost-cutting attempts to get her services for less. What’s money to a muse like her, anyway?

Even the ending, which is usually the weakest part of Brooks’s movies, manages to wrap things up beautifully here. It’s tempting to think that Brooks had a muse of his own working with him on this one. (Maybe it was his long-time writing partner, the late Monica Johnson.) Whatever inspired Albert Brooks in this instance, The Muse will make you feel like you’re in the middle of a very inside but very funny Hollywood joke.

THE SIMPSONS MOVIE (2007) – D’oh, boy!


Most reviews of The Simpsons Movie have the same curious tone: They complain that the movie isn’t as edgy or funny as they expected, and then they say that the movie is funnier and edgier than most movies that came out at the same time.

I’ve always found the “Simpsons” TV series hilarious, but I don’t know if it was ever as edgy as people said it was. Its main strength has always been to come right up to the edge of subversion, only to end up embracing the nuclear-family concept.

Since the movie is 89 minutes long (four times the length of a TV episode), it has a broader spectrum in which to play. But it never dawdles; as with the series, the movie is briskly paced, funny, and incisive. Would that every movie comedy met that standard.

Amazingly, this cartoon version of an epic — it uses 15 past and present “Simpsons” writers, and the show’s hundreds of supporting characters — begins with only the idea of the series’ anti-hero, Homer Simpson, falling in love with a pig.

From that moronically simple plot development, the movie blossoms like a flower on steroids. It takes trips physical (north to Alaska) and psychological (Homer goes hallucinogenic). It has erudite references that will sail over kiddies’ heads, and it gets its PG-13 rating by having Bart Simpson briefly doing the full monty.

It takes pot-shots at its parent company Fox and their rival Disney, as well as squeezing in a public-service announcement from Tom Hanks.

And strangest of all, it is often downright touching. (At one point, Homer’s put-upon spouse Marge, voiced by Julie Kavner, leaves Homer a “Dear John” video that might be — no kidding — Kavner’s best-ever acting job.)

As with the show, The Simpsons Movie does what the best comedy does: take a jaundiced eye at the kind of insipid behavior that most of us are either too polite or too ignorant to point out.

I’m cynical about most TV-to-movie spin-offs, but The Simpsons Movie shows that it can be done right, if its makers care enough about the quality. (Oh, and maybe your TV show has to last for 18 seasons first.)

Happy birthday, Albert Brooks


Today is the 65th birthday of Albert Brooks — in my humble opinion, one of the funniest men to ever grace the planet.

Brooks has been dubbed in many ways — “the comedian’s comedian,” “the West Coast Woody Allen” — all of which are another way of saying that usually, Brooks is too smart for the room. It’s the reason why much of his work is brilliantly funny, and also probably the reason he doesn’t get bigger box-office for his movies.

In his early days as a comedian, Brooks was part of the “ironic” comedians of the 1970’s (think Steve Martin or Andy Kaufman) who deconstructed stand-up comedy. (On one of countless appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” he did an entire bit about how frustrated he was that he’d run out of comedy material.)

When he started making movies — first as a contributor to the first season of “Saturday Night Live,” then in actual feature films — Brooks adopted a persona in which he was so intent on being hip and “doing the right thing” that he never realized how self-absorbed and obnoxious he was.

This culminated in what I feel is his finest movie achievement: Lost in America (1985), in which a frustrated ad man (Brooks) decides to take his wife, chuck all of their middle-classness, and get out into nature and “touch Indians” — all while touring the country in a 40-foot Winnebago.


(I’d go into more detail about this delicious, daintily black comedy, except that I’ve already devoted a website to it. If you want to find out more about this movie, please go to

Brooks has also done a fine job in playing other people’s characters, having twice been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, for his work in the movies Broadcast News (1987) and Drive (2011).

To brighten your day, I leave you with one of my all-time favorite Brooks bits, in which he does a ventriloquist act with a Speak & Spell toy.