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.
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.