|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 15 February 2000|
Even the best Albert Brooks movies leave some people cold, while others find him one of the great comic writer/director/actors. Based on realistic characters and their romantic/professional troubles, his humor is dry and ironic. He doesn't worry much about timing, and avoids slapstick. Although THE MUSE is often very funny, it's also hardly Brooks' best movie. The problem is that whatever point he's trying to make is so obscure as to raise the question of whether there's any point at all.
Steven Phillips (Brooks) is a successful screenwriter whose latest work is coolly rejected by young studio executive Josh (Mark Feuerstein); maybe Steven has lost his edge, he suggests. Steven fears he reall has lost his edge, so his wife Laura (Andie MacDowell) suggests he visit his long-time friend Jack Warrick (Jeff Bridges), a fellow writer whose career is soaring.
Steven is dumbfounded when Jack reveals that the wellspring of his own creativity is a Muse. A real Muse, one of the daughters of Zeus from Greek mythology. And after some hesitation, he's willing to share her with Steven.
Now willing to try anything, Steven arrives at the guest house where the Muse, Sarah Little (Sharon Stone), is currently living. She's a dazzling blonde in dazzling clothes, sexy but self-assured and not flirtatious, though she's kind of giddy. At first, Steven is impressed, but she turns out to be very demanding -- always in an apologetic, rather graceful manner, of course -- and very expensive to maintain, since she expects him to cater to her every whim.
Initially, she does spur some ideas for Steven, but what we hear of it sounds pretty bad. On the other hand, after she abandons the hotel for the Phillips' family guest room, she does spur Laura on to becoming a cookie mogul. (A weirdly recurring plot element: it turns up again in Woody Allen's SMALL TIME CROOKS.)
Story and structure have always been stumbling blocks for Brooks; even LOST IN AMERICA is really only a setup with no payoff. But THE MUSE is particularly weak, because it doesn't seem to be going anywhere; it isn't even a setup, it's just a premise. The script by Brooks and Monica Johnson never makes clear if Sarah is really a Muse -- part of the joke, of course. But if she's not really a Muse, people in Hollywood must be so shallow as to willingly fool themselves into believing she is. Did she really help Rob Reiner, James Cameron and Martin Scorsese, all of whom have cameos, or is she the sexy blonde equivalent of Dumbo's magic feather? That is, was it in these people all along to succeed, needing only a belief in their own abilities?
If that's the case, then what about Steven? Are we to believe that Brooks and Johnson think the horrendously awful "summer comedy" idea he develops while hanging around Sarah is the equivalent of, say, RAGING BULL or even THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT? Or is the joke that this ghastly idea is the best that Steven can muster, even when inspired by a Muse? (Or worse yet, does Brooks think it's the kind of idea that makes for a successful big Hollywood movie?)
No matter which possibility you select (she's a muse, she's not a muse, she's a muse but Steven is a rotten writer), it peters out somewhere, doesn't add up. Is Sarah supposed to represent the two-edged sword of creativity itself? Or is she a loony tunes whose self-deception is so powerful that she sweeps others up in it? We never know what we're supposed to conclude -- and it doesn't work as ambiguity, either, since none of the ideas really add up; even if Brooks wants us to draw our own conclusion, we can't.
Sharon Stone rarely does comedies, but her timing is great, and her robust, mature sexuality is exactly what the role of Sarah requires. There's nothing ethereal about this Muse, but she still manages to suggest that she's not quite of this world. Her self-assurance is at once charming and irritating; she's someone you'd love to meet (and maybe more than meet -- she has a brief nude scene), but you would run away screaming after half an hour. She's an apologetic bulldozer in blue silk, batting her eyes, brandishing her folding fan, flashing her radiant smiles, and always, ultimately getting her own way, no matter what. She's a force of nature, and just a shade deranged -- and the best thing about the movie. In his own movies, Brooks usually plays a self-obsessed egoist who runs roughshod over others while viewing himself as the victim -- and usually does end up being victimized. But we know the director(writer) wants us to view his character as something of a jerk, but an interesting jerk, one it's fun to spend time watching. Here, Brooks instead plays a basically nice, normal guy who happens to be a screenwriter; his His only real problem is that he has run out of ideas, "lost your edge," as everyone tells him. This is Brooks as Fred MacMurray, the hapless, put-upon shmoe. And it doesn't fit him well.
The movie is studded with cameos; Sarah advises James Cameron to avoid water, and tells Martin Scorsese (in a hilarious, fast-talking bit) that it's okay for him to remake RAGING BULL with a really, really thin guy. Others who appear include Cybill Shepherd, Jennifer Tilly and Lorenzo Lamas.
It's a shame that THE MUSE better than it is; Albert Brooks is a very special talent, and his movies are far too rare. He probably won't do another for several years, but when he does, he needs to think more about the ultimate effect of his movie, what it's about. THE MUSE vanishes as you watch it because, at last, it wasn't inspired.
The movie is nicely presented on the DVD, with an especially good animated Menu, a cartoon of Sarah waving her fan. And there are a couple of cookies; one is a surprisingly detailed history of the Muses from Greek mythology, and the other is actually a cookie -- or rather, Laura's cookie recipe. The extras include the terrific teaser trailer for THE MUSE, which shows the entire movie in 15 seconds. The later trailer is also included, and is nothing much. Neither is the "making of" documentary; it's utterly standard. The biographies are also standard, straight from the press kit.