It is the fate of virtually every modern, male, actor-writer-director comedian in the world to be compared to Woody Allen. Thus, poor Nanni Moretti (Caro diario, 1994) – whose left-wing politics, intimate musings and droll sense of social absurdity bear no relation to anything in Manhattan (1979) or Mighty Aphrodite (1995) – gets labelled "the Italian Woody Allen". And Albert Brooks, America's finest and sharpest comic mind, suffers from being misperceived as "the West Coast Woody Allen".
Alas, writer-director-actor Brooks is not even half as well-known as his supposed counterpart on the East Coast. Where Woody churns out a film a year like clockwork, Albert takes his time. After his moment in the limelight of Saturday Night Live and a couple of comedy records in the mid '70s, Brooks has made only six of his own films in the past twenty-one years.
He wrote The Scout (1994) as well as acting in it, and had a small but memorable role in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976). Writer-producer-director James L. Brooks (of The Simpsons and Terms of Endearment  fame) – not a blood relative – obviously understands him best, casting him in plum roles in Broadcast News (1987) and I'll Do Anything (1994).
One thing is certain: Brooks rates high among the joys of a cinephile's life. His very idiosyncratic and personal mode of comedy has never quite achieved mainstream success, but the cult worship he inspires, all over the world, is fierce.
If there's anything that links the three very different guys mentioned above – Brooks, Allen and Moretti – it would have to be their respective exhibitions of masculine neuroses. Like the need to control all those around them, the fear of growing old or failing at work, or an attitude to women that swings alarmingly from awestruck adoration to outright persecution.
Brooks on screen is a prickly but endearing spectacle. Grouchy, dissatisfied and vaguely troubled by a psychological malaise he can rarely pinpoint, he turns his bad vibes against the abundant shallowness and evasiveness of everyone around him. His body language (often stiff and sulky), his arrogant displays of sophistication, his relentless display of base, messy emotions – like how he envies his brother (Rob Morrow) in Mother (1996), or wears down his lover (Kathryn Harrold) with paranoid inquisitions in Modern Romance (1981) – all of this places him far from the stereotype of the lovable nut.
So Brooks is not a standard screen-neurotic in the Woody Allen mould – the kind whose wisecracks make him, and us, feel superior. Brooks in fact once commented: "I've always hated the word 'neurotic' – life is not an easy road for anybody no matter who you are, so all I'm really doing is saying 'Look what happens'." Like Allen or Moretti, Brooks plays to our fantasy that the troubled man we see on screen is probably the same troubled man off-screen. But Brooks – in movies like the acerbic Lost in America (1985) – goes further than just about any comic in letting us actively dislike his presence and personality.
This is the crux of the difference between Allen and Brooks – and why I much prefer the latter. Although Woody can project himself (in the flesh, or through his alter egos) as a flawed, even reprehensible guy, he is always out to make us love him and identify with his pain and his pathos. In particular, Allen makes dead sure that, when it really counts, he and we are going to be on the same side of a laugh. And the butts of this laughter are all the one-dimensional types in his movies – bimbos, radicals, underclass dwellers, old folks, feminists, teenagers.
Allen, whatever his fondness for popular art of the Marx Brothers or Jerry Lewis, is secretly, in his heart of hearts, an aristocrat, an elitist. There is a narcissistic unpleasantness in his work – arising, ultimately, from a lack of true empathy for anyone different from himself – which Australian fans like writer-director Bob Ellis (The Nostradamus Kid, 1993) have slavishly emulated.
Brooks is as good at one-liner putdowns as any embittered comic. But, in his films, we are never locked up exclusively in his sensibility or viewpoint. Take the marvellous, excruciating scene of his date with Lisa Kudrow in Mother. The premise of the scene is classic Allen material: he's a cultured writer, and she isn't (she mixes up Charles Chaplin with Charles Dickens, and proudly upholds her mistake). Brooks treats this encounter as Allen never would, turning the tables of the scene simply by giving us a prior glimpse of Kudrow with her best girlfriend: "I'm just having dinner with him, we're not having sex." "Does he know that?" "Well, he will by dessert."
Steven in The Muse is a model Brooks character: if he hates the world, he doubts and disparages himself just as much. Such a brittle system of caustic interaction and low self-esteem is guaranteed by the film's setting: Hollywood.
Steven is a scriptwriter in trouble – he's lost his edge, and a young, know-nothing studio executive is telling him to head for his "third career" ("I never had a second career", he glumly replies). His fabulously successful pal, Jack (Jeff Bridges), shares a secret: if Steven can secure the mystical services of Sarah (Sharon Stone), an authentic Muse, his troubles will be over.
Of course, with Sarah in his life, Steven's troubles are just beginning. She does appear to have impeccable taste when it comes to Hollywood success, but she spends so little quality time with Steven – and makes him pay and pay for everything.
There isn't much plot in this movie – a hovering intrigue around Sarah is made explicit only late in the piece – but the best complications involve Laura (Andie MacDowell), Steven's wife. Soon eager to bring Sarah into their home and involve her in their family life, Laura blossoms under the Muse's tutelage – much to Steven's chagrin.
This is Brooks' lightest film, eager to please with its sight gags, one-liners and celebrity cameos (from James Cameron and Martin Scorsese, among others). As a director, Brooks' style is smooth and precise, but one misses the more eccentric and wayward touches of his earlier work – such as the pop standards whose lyrics he loves to rewrite.
Like all of Brooks' films, The Muse is low-key, smart, and funny in a way that can't be exactly judged by tallies of punchlines or even audience laughs. Brooks' art is the comedy of discomfort, embarrassment, shame, and unfinished business between friends, lovers and family members. It is quietly infectious, but also deliberately unnerving.
The Muse is entertaining, but its tone never quite gels. Previously, Brooks' work has been witheringly sardonic from go to woe – as in the astoundingly prophetic Real Life (1979) or Modern Romance, which remain his best films – or it has sincerely aimed for an optimistic resolution, like in the underrated Mother. In that movie, the Brooks character moves back in with Debbie Reynolds in order to figure out why all his relationships with women end so badly – thereby revealing a certain, latent New Age therapeutic quality in Brooks' art. In The Muse, however, Brooks never figures out whether he wants to negate or affirm the behind-the-scenes Hollywood he conjures.
Still, there is much to be enjoyed in here – particularly Stone, at the top of her form as a self-made lady of leisure who gets whatever she wants by lazing back in her chair, crinkling her face, curling her hands, lowering her voice and beseeching those at her beck and call: "Could you just get me a little something while you're up?".
© Adrian Martin July/August 1999