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NewCityNet Muse Man

Albert Brooks accommodates inspiration

By Ray Pride

AUGUST 30, 1999:  Albert Brooks says he'll make a movie one day that will involve his namesake: Albert Einstein. For now, he'll have to be his own genius. "I have a very specific idea about how to do that," the 52-year-old Brooks grins, "But I don't want to tell you because you'll print it and then the people that did 'The Truman Show' will take that idea, too!"

Brooks, née Einstein, son of dialect comic Harry Einstein, grew up surrounded by compulsively funny elders, and that's a joke drawn from the genial apprehension of his latest, "The Muse." His exquisitely played comedy (written with Monica Johnson) asserts that the vagaries of Hollywood careers can only be explained by the presence of flesh-and-blood muses, temperamental idea-spouters in need of continuous pampering.

Brooks plays a middle-aged screenwriter who's told by rude 20ish twerps that he's lost his "edge," and through more successful friend Jeff Bridges, meets muse Sharon Stone (who proves an ingenious, inventive comedienne with assured, meticulous timing). Brooks drives stakes into the coffin of Hollywood self-importance as well as letting one of his uncommonly funny, latter-day common-man figures bury himself. Brooks' refined visual style is matched only by his emotional honesty. "The Muse" is certainly mellower than his savage 1981 masterpiece, "Modern Romance," but Brooks' writing, etching a kind of lapidary discomfiture and mortification that can only be met with wide-eyed double-takes and pouty retorts, has never been more distilled.

With only six features in twenty years, each of Brooks' comedies shows a different stage of life. "One of the keys is to accept who you are and what you are as a comedian at that stage of your life instead of trying to be the guy at 20. That's bad." As the father of a young son, he says, "This movie was the first movie where I've even had children as characters. Maybe the next movie, the children play more of a part, maybe not. Even as a standup, I've always been very conscious of using who I am at that moment to try to make comedy. My son is too young to have influenced anything I've done yet. I'm sure without me even realizing it, it's changing my perspective. I can't tell you how, but I'm positive it will. I never would have watched 'Teletubbies' on my own! I'm sure they're sinking in and I'm going to be regurgitating this in some comedic fashion that I can't tell you right now."

Aside from a living room filled with the likes of Carl Reiner when he was a kid, Brooks took in other kinds of comedy. "Oh, Soupy Sales was everybody's favorite. You couldn't wait to come home from school and see who he was going to throw a pie at. Sinatra came on the 'Soupy Sales Show' and he threw a pie. It was like landing on the moon, it was such a big event. We all loved him. I liked 'The Little Rascals.' I liked them building the office and everything. I just wanted a version where the Rascals tried to get financing and couldn't."

Brooks has never been tempted to write any other way. "I've never sat down, y'know, turned on a typewriter, said, 'What will sell, what will Hollywood want?' I just make a movie that makes me laugh. Even when I was 26, these were tough to make. I'm unusual. I don't have any of those horrible feelings of 'Oh I remember when! I remember when I could eat at the commissary at the best table!' I never could do any of that. The one problem I don't have is being on the out, because I've never been on the in. There's no falling from grace, I've never been near grace. I don't think I've ever been on the outside to be thrown out. Each film for me, the ones that I make, I face the same difficulty."

But is the writing difficult, paring things down to his economical style, I wondered. There's a scene where Brooks walks into the kitchen, and inspired by the muse, wife Andie MacDowell has turned the place into a bustling bakery. He's hungry, she offers him a cookie. His petulant retort? "I'm not 6, I'd like a meal." Or, in reply to, "I won't dignify that with an answer," Brooks ripostes, "C'mon, dignify it with a 'No.'" Brooks smiles. "That's a good joke, yeah." It seems like it's easy, but is there a process of winnowing away? "Sometimes that's what comes out. That's your brain working on all cylinders. That's just being funny. That comes from talking to audiences and, y'know, economy is just the soulmate of comedy. It's very important when you do standup, it's very important when you do movies. Less is more, it always has been. I just think that's what I know how to do."

If only Hollywood knew what to do with the likes of Brooks. "The style of comedy I do has never been what they're looking for. When I was doing stand-up, there were comedians who were joke tellers. They were making a lot more money in Vegas. I didn't choose to do that, either. It's just, y'know, I just do what's inside and I don't know why. On a parallel planet, maybe my movie makes $300 million and 'Austin Powers' doesn't." A perfect pause, a couple beats. "I don't know where that planet is."

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