Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Grecian Formula

By Donna Bowman

SEPTEMBER 7, 1999:  Every couple of years, when Albert Brooks releases a new project, profiles appear in magazines and newspapers dubbing him "the comedian's comedian." Revered among his peers for his cerebral humor, inventiveness, and commitment to personal projects, Brooks counts the entertainment elite as his biggest fans. He's often compared to Woody Allen not only for his neurotic, self-deprecating style, but also for the relative freedom that his standing in the industry affords him.

But as Woody found out during his Bergman-fetish, Stardust Memories years, the laurel wreaths flung by the cognoscenti can become shackles. Being crowned master of your genre often means that people get miffed if you strike out in new directions. Even a subtle shift of theme--from the frustrated lover to the husband facing career crisis, for example--meets with frowns. "It's not as funny as Modern Romance," Brooks' fans mutter as they leave his new film The Muse. And the critics among them write reviews full of heartfelt disappointment that their favorite comedian has "lost his edge."

To be fair, few critics are likely to be irony-impaired enough to use that phrase. After all, The Muse is about a Hollywood screenwriter whose standard-issue scripts are suddenly getting rejected by studio suits who repeat the meaningless "lost edge" platitude ad infinitum. Brooks' character, Steven Phillips, doesn't have the slightest idea where to look for edge, since he's unaware of ever having possessed it, much less having misplaced it. It's a situation that Brooks himself might have experienced after his last film, Mother, was met with sighs and sad head-shaking from the press.

In the case of The Muse, the negative reaction concerns the way Brooks develops the movie's can't-miss satirical premise: Steven is introduced to a muse, one of the nine daughters of Zeus, whose job is to inspire creative artists. He's ecstatic when Sarah (Sharon Stone) agrees to take him on as a client, but he quickly chafes under her capricious and expensive demands. Stripped of its mythological overtones, the premise is that creativity is a fickle mistress to be placated in the desperate hope that she will bestow her mysterious gifts. And if that's all there were to The Muse, the critics would be right to carp that Brooks doesn't take this idea as far as he should.

Their error is not recognizing that Brooks has several other themes on his mind. For example, there's a fascinating ribbon of jokes running through the film about ideas as currency in the entertainment culture; everyone from writers to executives has a million-dollar idea and is paranoid about having it "stolen." Steven himself sees ideas strictly in dollar-sign terms. The Oscar he craves doesn't signify integrity or genius, just success and marketability. He doesn't employ his muse to make great art; he wants a big summer comedy hit.

When Steven's wife Laura (Andie MacDowell) takes the muse's advice and starts her own cookie company, Steven is apoplectic. The reasons he gives for his anger have to do with needing the muse for his own work; the unspoken reasons have to do with jealousy. But there's a further level of subtext. Steven writes because it's the one skill he has to support his family. The suggestion that his wife might become a creative success out of passion rather than mercenary need, supplanting him and proving his talent petty, fills him with fear.

The Muse, while consistently funny, doesn't register as many belly laughs as the work that made Brooks famous. But Brooks is developing new characters to express himself, and if jokes are sacrificed for deeper reflection on family, work, and self-image, audiences are the richer for it. Those arriving without labels and preconceptions pinned on the filmmaker won't make the critics' mistake. They'll see a film rather than a bid for more worthless laurels.

Married to the Blob

Johnny Depp is the astronaut and Charlize Theron is The Astronaut's Wife in a spiritless sci-fi horror exercise from first-time director Rand Ravich. After Depp is involved in an accident in space, Theron begins to suspect that he has been inhabited by an extraterrestrial intelligence, and that the babies in her womb may be the vanguard of an invasion. Apparently, the creatures are beaming themselves to earth in a radio transmission (although they can be seen by the naked eye), they require two bodies to communicate their dastardly plans (although one of them dies in the first reel), and they're building a computer in a fighter plane to beam more of themselves down (although they needed no such computer for the first trip).

So Ravich's script is a mess. The real hero of the film is cinematographer Allen Daviau, who lights normal spaces like hospitals or schools as though they were futuristic space labs, heightening the feeling of the alien in the everyday. Unfortunately, Ravich takes this minor design element and expands it over the entire blueprint, making everything muted and spare. He even directs the actors this way, convincing two of our most expressive performers to play it stiff so that they won't clash with the decor.

Notwithstanding Depp's fumbling approach to action roles (remember Nick of Time?) or the fact that Theron has already played this part once (remember The Devil's Advocate?), The Astronaut's Wife mainly suffers from a lack of vision. A smart filmmaker (as opposed to Ravich, whose hottest prior credit is as screenwriter for Candyman 2) might've used the "bodily possession" angle to have some fun with the communication problems of young married couples, or to comment on bullying husbands. Instead, Ravich just wants to creep us out. What he doesn't realize is that if our minds aren't engaged, our stomachs won't tighten. --Noel Murray

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