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The Muse of Albert

For comedian Brooks, life's comic possibilities are the soul of his uniquely funny, personal films.

August 26, 1999|PAUL BROWNFIELD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Treating a unique career, which Albert is having, as some mild tragedy is a big mistake," James L. Brooks adds. " . . . Some pictures don't reach the audience they might deserve. But the big deal is they let you do it. Everything else is hubris."

Albert Brooks' hubris has tended to be linked to his on-screen personality. The supposition is that "Real Life" and "Modern Romance" and "Lost in America," though important, even seminal comedies, featured too smothering and self-involved a character for mainstream audiences, who mostly heard a guy whining about his problems. Brooks has begun of late to agree--or at least to try to agree. In his last three movies, he has receded from view, giving what are essentially co-starring roles to big-name females--Meryl Streep in "Defending Your Life," Debbie Reynolds in "Mother" and now Stone in "The Muse."

"I think the earlier characters sort of ran into walls with their head down like a ram. And I think maybe the later characters recognized that there was a wall," Brooks says. "In the very early movies, I had no concept of audiences liking or disliking a character. I was very naive. I thought audiences would always know that these were written or prepared. But they don't, they just take it at face value. As fun as it [was] to play, I would say the amount of people who hated the guy in 'Real Life' and 'Modern Romance,' it would be tough to keep doing that film after film, to get any financing. It doesn't mean you have to play a big lovable sop, but you have to find a way to let more people in."

Brooks did try, in his own way, to go "Hollywood." He agreed to rewrite the Andrew Bergman script for "The Scout" and to star in the 1994 film about a New York Yankees scout who discovers a phenom pitcher in the Mexican leagues. But the studio, Fox, made him tack on a happy ending, Brooks says, and, predictably, the experience ended badly.

Hoping to Connect With Large Audience

It remains to be seen how sympathetic audiences will find Brooks' screenwriter in "The Muse." When we meet him, Phillips is so lacking in edge that the town gives him a humanitarian award. In desperation, he finds Stone, who plays a real-life Muse, the Greek goddess of inspiration secretly on retainer all over Hollywood, counseling screenwriters and directors on how to orchestrate their next hits.

All of this may sound "too inside," industry-speak for a film that won't resonate beyond the 310 and 323 area codes, but to Brooks "The Muse" is more a domestic comedy: big and fun and accessible, with 65 laughs (he counted at a preview screening) and a bankable female star. In addition, USA Films is releasing "The Muse" into 1,200 theaters, far from the Paramount release of "Mother," which hit six theaters on opening day in 1996.

Stone, who says she'd been wanting to segue into comedy for some time, agreed to do "The Muse" without reading the script, and at a reduced fee. She does not appear to be joking when she calls Brooks "the living Kubrick" and says he had only one major request as a director: "You're not going to play [the Muse] like Zsa Zsa Gabor, are you?"

Brooks says "The Muse" wasn't supposed to be his latest film. Instead, he was working on a script that harkens back to "Albert Brooks' Famous School for Comedians," a short film he did for PBS in 1971 about a fictitious school that trained people in various comedic skills, including the spit take. The new movie was going to involve a branch of the school, one that trained comedians to go into hospitals and heal people with their jokes. But then Brooks saw a blurb about a movie called "Patch Adams," and he changed his mind.

Image From the Movies: West Coast Woody Allen

In any Albert Brooks movie, it's the little scenes that resonate: In "Lost in America," it's when Brooks' yuppie, then broke, walks into a pharmacy in the middle of nowhere and asks the druggist if there are any high-paying jobs in the immediate area ("No, not in the immediate area," the druggist replies). In "Modern Romance," it's when film editor Robert Cole, newly single, makes a date with a woman only to pick her up, drive a few blocks, then return her to the sidewalk in front of her apartment, apologizing that he's dating too soon.

The movies project the long-held image of Brooks as the West Coast Woody Allen, a bundle of self-indulgent neuroses. But "the person Albert Brooks," says writer Monica Johnson, "can laugh at the character Albert Brooks. He isn't living that. He isn't some weird, isolated, neurotic guy."

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