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After a summer in which big-time directors only disappointed and lowbrow movies scraped bottom so vigorously that they excavated a whole new stylistic cellar, a few Hollywood satires are certainly in order. Appropriately, Bowfinger and The Muse are both about middle-aged men in an increasingly teencentric business. “They can smell 50,” laments Steve Martin’s Bobby Bowfinger, while Albert Brooks’ Steven Phillips is a screenwriter dumped by a major studio when a 30-ish executive announces that the scribe has “lost his edge.” His salvation, the writer eventually realizes, will be to script a “summer comedy”—although Brooks probably wasn’t anticipating the challenge of American Pie when he wrote that line.
Bowfinger has plenty of inside jokes, but it imagines a much wider world than The Muse, which sticks to Brooks’ customary neurotic schtick and domestic scale. Although the film includes a few high-profile cameos, it’s essentially a chamber piece. Whereas most of the writer-director’s comedies are duets for Brooks and an actress, this one modestly ups the ante with two female leads: Andie MacDowell, who plays Phillips’ wife, Laura, and Sharon Stone, who plays freelance muse Sarah. Appropriately, the appearance of infidelity is one of the film’s recurring themes.
Stunned at the news that he’s now considered edgeless, Steven visits fellow screenwriter Jack Warrick (Jeff Bridges). At the latter’s palatial home, Steven spies Sarah and wonders aloud if Jack is having an affair. Jack reluctantly reveals that Sarah is his muse—literally. An actual daughter of Zeus and one of the original muses who inspired all artistic endeavor in ancient Athens, Sarah has sparked the imaginations of some of America’s most successful writers and directors. This latter-day demigoddess has gone Hollywood to the extent that she understands perks: Whoever expects her inspirational services has to provide her with a hotel suite or guest house, satisfy her culinary cravings, and indulge her taste for trophy jewelry. Soon Steven is trying both to foot Sarah’s bill and to hide the muse from Laura.
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This premise has the potential for an hour or so of merriment, but Brooks quickly loses interest in gags that turn on suspicions of adultery. There’s a domestic matter that’s much closer to his heart: the impossible house guest. Perhaps because Brooks is a native of Los Angeles, a city better known for its mansions, bungalows, and tract houses than its public spaces, he can imagine nothing more uproarious than an invasion of someone’s home. For his first film, Real Life, and his most recent, Mother, the director cast himself as the annoying man who came to dinner. Lost in America turns the homestead into an RV and takes it on the road, while in Modern Romance Brooks lays siege to an ex-girlfriend’s home. The only one of his films that doesn’t fit into this pattern is Defending Your Life—and in that one, after all, Brooks plays dead. (Life is also the only Brooks movie in which he cast himself against a formidable actress, Meryl Streep, and the only one not co-written by Monica Johnson.)
Recently married and a new father, Brooks is now sufficiently settled to imagine a slightly different scenario: Laura meets Sarah, they hit it off, and soon Steven is the one who’s been dispossessed. In fact, Sarah inspires Laura to start a new career, while Steven sulks in the apartment above the garage, greeting various celebrities who visit to thank the muse for their successes. Even these walk-ons demonstrate the narrowness of Brooks’ universe: They include his Beverly Hills High School buddy Rob Reiner, celebrity frozen-pizza maker Wolfgang Puck, and Martin Scorsese, who directed Brooks in his first feature role. The filmmaker never strays far enough from his own existence to imagine something like the Scientology-mocking cult, Mind Head, that’s the funniest thing in Bowfinger. Although Brooks has great fun at the expense of studio execs, it ultimately seems that he doesn’t fully understand just how strange his hometown really is. After all, anyone who would hire Elton John to compose The Muse’s terrible score must be, in however modest a way, part of the system.
How can an undercover cop tell when he’s in too deep? Well, if he’s a character in the film of the same name, he won’t have to think about it. His boss will pull him out of the field to urgently inform him. Whenever she gets a chance, his girlfriend will tell him, too. But what can Jeff (Omar Epps) do? After all, he’s in too deep!
“Based on a true story” tarted up by producer-screenwriters Paul Aaron and Michael Henry Brown, In Too Deep is a crisp, credible genre exercise. Still, its lack of psychological depth is both a difficulty and a puzzle. Director Michael Rymer’s 1995 film, Angel Baby, was a wild-eyed attempt at conveying the turbulent emotions of two lovers who meet at a psychiatric clinic. Transplanted from his native Australia to the sort-of-mean streets of Cincinnati—and from the world of Prozac to that of cocaine—Rymer has left subjectivity behind. He tells the basic story efficiently, but Jeff’s state of mind is largely left unexplored.
Jeff’s target is God (LL Cool J), the brutal patriarch of a Cincinnati drug gang. Although he takes care of the poor, young, and elderly in his fiefdom and considers his lieutenants family, this God is easily angered. “Black people in this country wanna feel like they belong to something,” says God in his benevolent mode, yet missteps are severely punished, perhaps with a severed tongue or a pool cue up the rectum. (These penalties aren’t actually shown, but they are vividly suggested.) Because God is quick to eliminate his former best pals, he soon has an opening in his inner circle, and Jeff is in deep. Too deep? Impossible to say, really, although supervisor Preston (Stanley Tucci) regularly appears to bark his misgivings, and Jeff’s nice girl/nude model paramour Myra (Nia Long) is also concerned—especially when Jeff comes to see her in his gangster mode and gets into the sort of brawl with local cops that might threaten an ordinary officer’s career.
With its hot colors and high-contrast cinematography, the film is visceral and stylish, but it is ultimately blank. The tale of Jeff’s quest to bust God just isn’t that interesting, and it’s all the filmmakers offer. Although the movie was apparently conceived as a psychological odyssey, Jeff is provided with only a bit of backstory and such hip talismans as a wolf puppy named Miles. Any movie that ends with its hero going into therapy clearly doesn’t mean to be Superfly, but In Too Deep is a lot stronger on action than analysis. CP