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Moriarty reviews Albert Brooks' THE MUSE

Hey folks, Harry here. This is a sad review, sad because Moriarty deconstructs one of his favorite comedians who has gone horribly astray. I hate writing bad reviews, but you have to do it... especially when it's a film by a person you care about. I draw the parallel to a friend who becomes an alcoholic. You slap them around, drag them to a clinic, drive them to AA meetings... And in the end, you save your friend. With film and film criticism it's a bit more abstract, but it kind of feels the same. If you don't open your mouth and say what's wrong... then it'll never get better, and from the sound of this one... it couldn't get much worse.

Now, before I turn you over to the dear professor, I wanted to let you know this. By all means READ THIS REVIEW! There is more here than merely a review of a film. There are issues of what makes a comedy, bitterness against success, and more than a fair share of living in 'da nile'. So read on... It is a helluva read! Good work maestro...

Hey, Head Geek...

"Moriarty" here.

Wow. I don't know where to start this, so I'm going to take the advice of one of my henchmen. As I was talking about my reaction to the film I saw tonight, he told me to lead my review with one line, so allow me to do so:

Albert Brooks, you talented, magnificent bastard, why did you have to make such a shitty movie?

Just writing that -- just looking at it on my computer screen -- causes me deep emotional pain. I consider Albert Brooks to be one of the funniest men to ever work in film. He's definitely one of the sharpest comic minds of our time. His body of work as a writer and director is sharp, profound, and lasting. MODERN ROMANCE is as good a comedy as ever needs to be made about relationships and love. REAL LIFE still stands as the best film about our relationship with "reality" and television. DEFENDING YOUR LIFE is a beautiful fantasy premise executed almost perfectly. Even his lesser films like LOST IN AMERICA or MOTHER have been made up of achingly funny lines and wonderful performance work. All of this leads me to ache as I ask again...

Albert Brooks, you talented, magnificent bastard, why did you have to make such a shitty movie?

His new film, for those of you who don't know yet, is called THE MUSE. It's a story about Hollywood. I'm not a big fan of "behind the scenes" movies, since most of them are nonsense. Either they show the filmmaking process in a totally unrealistic light or they exaggerate it beyond recognizability. In any case, the films are almost never interesting to anyone who doesn't make films or want to make them. They're self-absorbed things, navel gazing of the worst kind, and they come across as smarmy, exclusive. Brooks doesn't give in to the worst of those instincts, but I can't imagine anyone outside the industry even enjoying the few chuckles I got out of the picture.

Very few, I might add.

I feel like I got mugged. I saw the trailer for this film a few weeks ago in front of LIMBO and I thought it was brilliant. It's all original footage, in which Albert talks about a new technique developed "in conjunction with NASA and the National Institute of Mental Health" that allows them to show the whole film in 20 seconds. He proceeds to do so, adding the soundtrack himself, pausing to comment on scenes he liked in particular. After the flurry of clips, he addresses the audience again, saying that we now should not only want to see the movie, but that we actually have to see the movie or we could die. He says the easiest way to handle it is just to check out THE MUSE. At the end of the spot, he adds that he loves this new technique. "Just last week I saw TITANIC in 30 seconds. Cried like a baby."

I thought the trailer was excellent, and I was really excited to go tonight. The other reason I was curious to see the film is because of Albert's recent appearance at the WGA's Words Into Pictures conference at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel. He was part of a panel talking about the state of the art of comedy in film right now, along with James L. Brooks, Harry Shearer, Janeane Garafalo, Norm MacDonald, David Zucker, and Ed Solomon.

Over the course of the panel, Albert Brooks managed to attack Adam Sandler openly, blaming him for much of what is wrong in film comedy today. The panel has been much discussed in the media since, with many people lining up behind Brooks automatically. After all, his films have managed to be smart and hysterical over the years without ever selling out or dumbing down what he does. He sees Sandler's work as lowest common denominator, and a waste of effort. It's easy to beat up Sandler after something like THE WATERBOY, and everyone seemed to feel good about agreeing with Albert.

But he's wrong.

In this case, at this point in time, he's wrong.

Albert's film is the one this summer that feels pointless, unfocused, and slapped together. I don't know how much work he's done to try and tighten this film up, but I know he always does extensive work in post-production. When I first moved to Los Angeles, I worked as a theater manager in Sherman Oaks, and we hosted dozens and dozens of test screenings, giving me a chance to see the process through the eyes of the filmmakers. In particular, I got to observe Albert Brooks as they tested DEFENDING YOUR LIFE over and over again. I'll never forget hearing him and David Geffen scream at each other in the theater lobby over the film's original opening. Albert argued for every line, every beat, and he made his case well. He could justify every joke, every pause, and he was passionate, involved, determined to get his vision onscreen. As the film kept testing, though, he began to see that the audience was bored. No matter how important the scenes were to him, the audience could live without them, and the film played better without them. In the end, he cut the elaborate opening scenes, and the scores went up automatically. Comedy is one of those things where you can't over- intellectualize something. If it's funny, it's funny. Audiences will laugh, and that's the best gauge you'll ever have. Listen to an audience.

I did tonight, and they laughed in a few places, but for the most part there was just a stony silence as the film played out. Brooks actually resorts to some cheap slapstick a few times (Waldorf salad on your face, Albert? Were you drunk?) that seems to be grafted on from someone else's movie. Plot elements are introduced and discarded at random. And no matter what ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT and her publicists tell you, Sharon Stone is not funny. The story is a mess, Andie MacDowell continues to prove that she's without any comic timing, and even Jeff Bridges seems to be phoning it in (except in that great tennis ball scene). The cameos aren't witty. How many times have we heard some variation on a TITANIC sequel joke with James Cameron? Scorcese's idea for a RAGING BULL remake is neither clever or witty. In fact, as long as we're on the subject, there's one giant fundemental flaw in this film. The screenplay that Stone inspires Brooks to write is supposed to be this brilliant comedy that turns his career around. Yet every single description of it that we hear in the film is unfunny, uninspired, and unfilmable. BEVERLY HILLBILLIES and and aquarium? What the hell? Is this really what Albert Brooks thinks studios are buying?

By contrast, when I saw a rough cut of BIG DADDY, the audience ate it up. From start to finish, they went with it, and they had a blast. It was funny. It was charming. And for the two hours I was in the theater, it was transporting on its own terms.

So who the hell is Albert Brooks to beat up on Adam Sandler? No one has a spotless filmography. I notice that no one brought up THE SCOUT to Albert even after he widened his attack to beat up Steve Martin for making choices like SGT. BILKO and FATHER OF THE BRIDE. Brooks managed to come off as bitter, beaten in some way by the industry, determined to bite back. It's sad for me to watch, but at least I'm not Norm MacDonald. Like any smart comic, MacDonald worships Brooks, and he found himself having to defend his friend to his idol in front of a roomful of people. To his credit, I think Norm did a great job. He was diplomatic (yes, the guy who loves to say "crack whore" actually possesses diplomacy), and he made his points effectively. At one point, Norm pointed out that people like Adam's films, to which Brooks responded, "By the way, let's do what else America likes. How about cancer? They all seem to get that. Must be good! People keep getting it!"

Norm didn't try to beat Brooks at the mean game, though. Instead, he made a valid point, saying, "We're trying to make people laugh. I can't make fun of a person, even if I don't think he's funny. If he's making millions and millions of people laugh, even if I don't think he's funny, I don't see the point in saying that this person is bad."

Brooks wouldn't let it go, though. "Wait a minute, wait... that's not really true. You don't automatically go into the fold just because somebody's popular. If everyone else likes them you don't have to, do you? Just because they're popular?"

Still trying to use tact as a weapon, Norm said, "I just don't like to make fun of them because they're doing a good thing. Like, you're my favorite comedian, Albert Brooks."

Brooks shot back a curt, "Okay."

Norm continued with, "But you're not America's favorite comedian, right?"

Brooks, understandably defensive, shot back, "There're a lot of other countries!"

Norm held firm, though. "This crowd, probably, these are very literate people, but you don't have the power or the ability to entertain a huge amount of people. If someone can come along and do that and make an enormous amount of people laugh, I think that's a great thing."

And I agree with Norm. That is a great thing. It's great if you make three people in a room laugh or if you make three million people around the country laugh. Comedy is important. Right now, Adam seems to give voice to a certain part of the market. They see themselves in him, in the persona he plays onscreen. They know Adam's an idiot, and that's the point. In his new film, he stretches and shows some real maturity, and there's a good chance his audience will follow. But that doesn't negate the value of him beating the shit out of Bob Barker in HAPPY GILMORE. "The price is wrong, bitch!" is just as funny in context as "I have seen the future, and it's a bald-headed man from New York!" There's no more inherent value in a smart joke than a dumb one.

The worst part is that Brooks is being an elitist on the eve of the release of his worst film. Maybe it stings being bounced from Paramount to the relatively small leagues of October Films. Maybe Albert resents still struggling to set his pictures up after 20 plus years in the business while Sandler's committed for the next three years solid. Maybe Albert would like a $20 million payday.

Whatever the case, it troubles me when our great comics go sour. One of the reasons that BOWFINGER is such a delight this summer is because it puts Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy back in the smart and silly business. There's a casual grace to their chemistry together, and it reminds you of all the good things both men have done. When Steve Martin is dour and pissy, though, there's no one on the planet who's less likable.

Here's another rant of Albert's from the panel discussion. It came a bit later in the session. "Adam Sandler on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE has made me laugh lots and lots and lots of times. I'm not even using Adam as an example but I find this interesting. There's something about this thing called motion pictures, this behemoth that Hollywood makes and is very difficult to master -- and more than not, great comedians don't -- like, if you came down from outer space and just looked at Richard Pryor's movies, nobody could ever convince you that Richard Pryor was funny. And here's one of the greatest comedians who ever lived! But the movies don't have anything to do with that. I think that happens with a lot of comedians. Sometimes the structure of the movie becomes safer than the comedian wants to be or more mainstream or whatever it is that you need to do to get $60 million to make a movie."

Ed Solomon then used Steve Martin as an example of another comic who never clicked in films. This is the same Steve Martin, by the way, who gave us ALL OF ME, DEAD MEN DON'T WEAR PLAID, THE JERK, LA STORY, ROXANNE, DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS, THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS, and LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, just to name a few. But they used his name, and this set Brooks off again.

"Listen, Steve Martin is probably one of the greatest stand-ups who ever lived, but in movies I don't know that he's really pushed himself. I don't know that THE OUT OF TOWNERS and FATHER OF THE BRIDE is really pushing yourself. Personally, I turned down millions of dollars to not do SGT. BILKO, because I thought it would hurt me. And then I see guys like Steve do that and maybe I feel like, how many of these can you do before that does matter? I always thought you can't do one. I was wrong. You can probably do 15 of these movies and make a lot more money than I've made. So I'm gonna run now and do one!"

Norm made a wonderful point when he said, "Guys that can write or perform really well -- yourself, Martin, Woody Allen -- there's almost none of them. Why on earth would you act in someone else's movie?"

Brooks answered, "Because they give you $5 million to do it. That's the only reason you would do SGT. BILKO. Phil Silvers was one of the greatest comedians that every lived. I read that script. That script was dogshit. I don't know what went through his mind. 'I'm gonna take a legend and redo it horribly! Oh, wow! This is exciting!' You know? I couldn't do it. Now, I would love to have that money. I've got a kid. But there's something wrong with this notion of comedies and comedians being popular, and that makes them good. Here's why: For 50 years General Motors made cars without seat belts And they sold a s--tload of them — the Oldsmobile, the '58 Olds, was a big popular car, and people's heads went right though that window. And then one day somebody said, you've got to put in a seat belt, and it took them 12 years, and they argued against it, and then they put in the seat belts and then the antilock brakes. The Oldsmobile today would save most of those people's lives who are in the grave. And I think comedy's the same thing. Audiences only know what they're given. If you get up on the stage and do an hour and a half of fart jokes, people laugh and they go home. But maybe one day, if you did 20 minutes of, maybe, I don't know, talking about God, then maybe the fart jokes in 10 years won't go over as well. So that's why I think it's the responsibility of the artist in the same way it's the responsibility of the people who make cars."

I'll close this review out by addressing Albert directly and answering his last point. The difference in the examples you use is that no one gets killed if they sit through a bad comedy. I know, because if they did, I wouldn't be able to write tonight's review.

Oh, Albert... you're one of my heroes... so why did you have to make such a shitty movie?

"Moriarty" out.

HARRY HERE: Just wanted to address the Oldsmobile metaphor about seatbelts. Ya know sometimes them seatbelts held people firmly in their seats so the steering wheel could push straight through their chest and impale them to their seats. Hand of fate is an odd thing. I will say this though... those early model Oldsmobiles.... at least you died in one hell of a cool looking car, those later 'safer' models... well, they just looked like hell! On the whole though, I'd rather drive a Tucker....

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