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Humiliation With a Smile | The Nation

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Humiliation With a Smile

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To suffer humiliation can be tragic. To bear humiliation for much longer than necessary, yet with loud impatience, is the comic gift of Albert Brooks. For some twenty years, beginning with Real Life, Brooks has presented himself in his movies as someone too openly intelligent to be Everyman, yet too middling to escape the indignities that are Everyman's lot--someone for whom the old shtick of the slow burn may appropriately be refined into the just plain slow. In Brooks's performances, the mirth-releasing eruption is not merely delayed but indefinitely postponed, so that it seems to get sucked back into his body, as if he were practicing a form of tantric humor. Those fidgets and stares and embittered wisecracks, which ripple through him for whole scenes at a time, are the hiccups of outrageous interruptus.

About the Author

Stuart Klawans
The Nation's film critic Stuart Klawans is author of the books Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order (a finalist for...

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Here he is in The Muse as screenwriter Steven Phillips, enduring (to take just one example) a meeting with Hollywood's most powerful man. Failure is announced the moment Steven wheels up to the Universal Pictures lot, only to be told he's received a "walk-on" pass, not a "drive-on." If we, as movie civilians, understand the meaning of this distinction, then surely an industry foot soldier such as Steven must recognize the rank to which he's just been assigned, and the futility of his mission. Yet he begins the trek anyway, laboring toward The Spielberg Building through a series of no fewer than five shots, all of which are funny, though only one offers the comfort of an identifiable gag. If Steven won't spare himself the ordeal, what makes us think we're going to get off easy?

And why, once he's attained the office of Mr. Spielberg, should Steven be in any hurry to leave? No matter that he sees, as soon as he's entered the door, that the interview amounts to a practical joke. The sweat he's worked up on his walk--the outward and visible sign of an inward terror--betrays the urgency of his mission, to revive a moribund career. Steven has a charming family, whom he may no longer be able to support. He has the right kind of car, on which he probably won't keep up the payments, and enough years vested in screenwriting that the car shouldn't be parked miles away, as if already in the repo lot. And so, despite the lack of a welcome, he stays put in the Spielberg office. Steven needs to confirm, to the last detail, that the cruelty to which he's being subjected is as thorough as it seems.

Besides, to leave any sooner would show a want of professional pride.

What is humiliation anyway? In Steven's terms, it's the experience of having someone younger, someone who isn't even Spielberg, call you into his office with a crooked finger, in a gesture that combines "Koochie-koo" with "Here, Fido." It's having the smooth lad tell you that your latest script lacks edge (whatever that means), then jot down your comeback because he thinks it's amusing. It's hearing him explain that people nowadays run through several careers--the smooth lad has read that in the Wall Street Journal--so isn't it time to start your next? But all that is mere prelude to the main exasperations of The Muse. Bad enough that Steven has failed to cope with producers. Soon enough, he'll be reduced to begging for a meeting with a mythological figure.

She goes by the name of Sarah, wears long scarves and diaphanous, off-the-shoulder lavender outfits and is played by Sharon Stone. Obviously, she's a goddess. At least, it's obvious to everyone who matters in Hollywood. Even children (or at least those who live in Bel Air) know that Sarah, an honest-to-Zeus muse, holds the key to success. Only Steven seems to have been kept in the dark, as usual. But now his buddy Jack (Jeff Bridges) has broken the code of silence and wrangled him an introduction, so that he, too, may benefit from Sarah's inspiration. The only problem is that Steven, being an Albert Brooks character, can't accommodate the demands of a muse with good grace. He's got to fret and negotiate and try to cut corners.

The needs of a muse are of course outsize--much like the needs of Hollywood's big winners, who contribute cameo appearances to the film, in which we see them flock to Sarah for help. How fragile they all turn out to be! At times, The Muse seems to suggest that Steven, too, might be a winner, if only he had their extravagance. Even people who don't claim creative genius--people such as his wife, Laura (Andie MacDowell), who is so wholesome that she dreams of launching a cookie-baking business--start to blossom when Sarah encourages them to plunge ahead in life, and purchase only top-of-the-line, brand-name products.

Steven is too guarded, not to mention cheap, to fling himself forward, Sarah-style, yet too desperate to hold back. So he toils through most of the film as the errand boy to greatness--a grousing errand boy at that. His lips, sopping with irony, sometimes squeeze together, as if wringing every bitter drop. His torso, though thick, has a downward pitch, pulled by the stony grievances that amass behind the forehead. Everything about Steven--or rather about Albert Brooks, as he's generally re-created himself in his films--is squared-off, gravity-bound, stubborn and in delicious contrast to Sharon Stone's Sarah, who seems always about to drift away at forty-five degrees to the horizon. Only at the end of The Muse--well, three-quarters of the way through--does it become possible to appreciate in retrospect the wonderful consistency of Stone's performance. The giddy tilt of the head; the ingenuous pop of the eyes; the flood of uncomprehending tears when room service at the Four Seasons won't bring her a Waldorf salad at midnight: Such signs of Olympian birth, or symptoms of flightiness, would understandably be worshiped in Hollywood by everyone except a reasonable man. And Steven, as we learn, resorts to reason only when demeaned.

You and I, who are always reasonable and never envy others' success, may laugh safely at The Muse, knowing that its lunacies are peculiar to Hollywood. And so they are. Nevertheless: If you know a woman of mature years who yearns to start a cookie-baking business, send her to see The Muse as a warning. The enthusiasm she'll need to unloose in herself is a form of madness, as the ancient Greeks understood. It can spark high achievements but also low silliness, and you can't tell in advance which you'll get.

If you're Steven Phillips, you won't even know afterward.

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