starring Albert Brooks, Sharon Stone, Andie MacDowell, Jeff Bridges
screenplay by Albert Brooks & Monica Johnson
directed by Albert Brooks
by Bill Chambers Albert Brooks's latest alter ego Stephen Phillips doesn't have writer's block, per se--he's artistically impotent. Only a week after winning a humanitarian award for his body of work, Stephen suffers at the hands of a young pup executive who pans his latest script (it's not edgy enough) and voids his contract with the studio. Jack (Jeff Bridges, deliciously arrogant), Stephen's successful screenwriter friend, suggests he seek out the inspiration of Sarah (Sharon Stone), an alleged "muse for hire." Sarah once rekindled Jack's creative fire; a desperate Stephen suspends his disbelief in her powers and begs for her counsel, even if it means having to shower her with gifts from Tiffany's, rent her a $1500/night room at the Four Seasons, and be at her beck and call. Meanwhile, Laura (Andie MacDowell), Stephen's wife, becomes chummy with Sarah over an expensive lunch and soon decides to start a cookie business, something along the lines of Famous Amos or Mrs. Fields. Long before Stephen finishes a new, edgier script, Wolfgang Puck--another of Sarah's Hollywood clients--is throwing Laura a party at Spago in honour of her baked goods.
There are more eloquent ways to put this, but none so succinct: Albert Brooks is one funny guy. After a career as a kind of anti-standup comedian morphed into making short films for "Saturday Night Live" and a memorable role in Taxi Driver, he turned to writing and directing, churning out smarty-pants comedies like Modern Romance, a scathing dissertation on the male fear of commitment. (The film so impressed Stanley Kubrick that it began a years-long telephone relationship between the two auteurs.) Over time, Brooks has become something of a Stephen Phillips himself, softening his approach and giving in to lowbrow instincts. 1996's Mother, probably his most widely-embraced work as a hyphenate to date, features the best part Brooks has ever written for a woman (the title character, played by Debbie Reynolds). Regrettably, it also contains material that was stale in 1986, such as the call-waiting gag (Mother doesn't grasp the concept), a sequence that too closely resembles Jay Leno's anecdotes about his clueless parents trying to program a VCR.
The Hollywood jokes of The Muse's first act are original (a producer tells Brooks that he owns the couch from Saving Private Ryan), and Brooks delivers some of his best one-liners ever as Stephen's career is being dismantled by a Paramount stooge. (Interestingly, Mother was a Paramount picture, while The Muse wound up being released under Universal's arthouse shingle October Films.) Unfortunately, The Muse doesn't follow through on the great promise of its set-up. One problem is that Brooks's comedy stylings get broader as the movie progresses: he's a verbal, not a physical, performer, and a moment in which Stephen bumps into a security guard and winds up covered in Waldorf salad is embarrassingly beneath Brooks. (Though a great deadpan, he would've made a terrible silent actor.) Such slapstick overcompensates for a dearth of zippy dialogue once Sarah enters the picture.
Stephen surrenders to all of Sarah's whims, and the movie insists we watch him perform every last chore for her. Brooks is mistaken if he believes that diva behaviour has intrinsic comic worth. The best that can be said for the woeful celebrity cameos is that they at least break up the repetitive rhythm of Sarah getting pampered. Brooks shouting "I'm king of the room!" to the awards audience in The Muse's opening scene, echoing James Cameron's infamous Oscar speech, is much more productively cringe-inducing than the Titanic director's actual visit to Sarah. I think Steve Martin had the right idea when he chose not to include any real-life stars in his superior industry send-up, the recent Bowfinger. That film is better, too, at sending up Scientology, one of the things Sarah might be satirizing as a genie with no discernible gifts who siphons money from her clientele like blood.
Worse, as Sarah's demands become less frequent, The Muse inexplicably turns into an Andie MacDowell movie. Sarah and Laura get along fabulously, and the film all but abandons Stephen's dilemma to focus on Laura's professional life. (I wondered why Sarah gave Stephen's wife all that encouragement without receiving a single gift from her in exchange. Are we to understand the muse's rules don't apply to the same sex?) Brooks has never betrayed much insight into women beyond their function as an externalization of either a man's conscience or his paranoia, and the film really fails when not one but two of them take centre stage.
An apologia posing as a movie, The Muse, unlike Brooks's other inside-baseball meditations on Hollywood (Modern Romance, Real Life), quickly deflates. It may come as no surprise that Brooks and co-writer Monica Johnson (Brooks's collaborator on every film except Defending Your Life, which may be his masterpiece) tidy up their plot with a final scene that somehow manages to be both pat and ambiguous. It's a twist indicative of the majority of the piece in that it feels like the first idea that came to mind. I wouldn't say that Brooks has lost his edge; I'd say he's abandoned it, perhaps hoping to duplicate the success of the cutesy Mother. When The Muse ended with an Elton John song, my brother started singing "Circle of Muse" at the screen. I couldn't write a better review than that. Originally published: September 2, 1999.