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.

THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984) – Comedy that goes up to 11


In my humble opinion, This Is Spinal Tap (1984) is one of the funniest movies ever made, all the more so because of the deadpan seriousness with which its minimally talented leads take themselves.

The movie is a send-up of rock-music pretentiousness as embodied in Spinal Tap, a heavy-metal group consisting of David (Michael McKean), Nigel (Christopher Guest), and Derek (Harry Shearer). The movie’s conceit is that a low-level filmmaker, Marty DiBergi (played by Rob Reiner, whose directorial debut this was), is doing a documentary about Spinal Tap’s latest American tour.

The movie was mostly improvised by Reiner and his stars, and the detail that went into their improvisations was enough to make many moviegoers believe that Spinal Tap was a genuine band. “Historical footage” shows Tap’s origins as a British skiffle band, evolving into a ’60s flower-power group before devolving into macho power-guitarists.

The mock-documentary clearly shows that the group is well on its way down, with concerts being cancelled right and left. (When a Boston gig is killed, their manager shrugs it off: “It’s not much of a college town anyway.”) The final straw is when David’s girlfriend meets up with him mid-tour and, Yoko Ono-style, tries to run roughshod over the band’s management.

Even when the movie’s isn’t laugh-out-loud funny (which it usually is), one is impressed with how realistically bad the band is. One of their hits — “Big Bottom,” a paean to female behinds — seems outrageous, until you recall that the real rock group Queen had a similar hit titled “Fat-Bottomed Girls.” It’s as though Reiner & Co. plotted out the legitimate story of a rock band and then turned it just slightly askew to milk it for huge laughs.

“Mock-umentary” comedies have practically become their own genre (and Tap‘s Christopher Guest has been responsible for the best of them, such as the dog-contest parody Best in Show). But This Is Spinal Tap remains the gold standard — proving, as one of its characters says, that “There’s such a fine line between brilliant…and stupid.”

(The DVD version is even more of a hoot, with the three leads offering far more commentary than is good for their images.)