"The Muse"

Albert Brooks proves all too effective at playing a screenwriter who's lost the golden touch.

By Stephanie Zacharek
Published August 27, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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If you believe Albert Brooks these days, all writers -- and all creative types,
period -- are a sorry lot, less interested in actually working than in stroking
their neuroses like worry beads. The big problem with Brooks' "The Muse" is that
he proves all too effective at writing (with collaborator Monica Johnson) and
playing a screenwriter who's lost the golden touch. "The Muse" is exactly the
kind of movie his character, Steven Phillips, would come up with: all
self-satisfied self-obsession and smirky Hollywood-insider gimmickry. It's not
just navel-gazing, but navel-gazing using no less than a dozen mirrors,
and it's ultimately more stupefying than entertaining.

And it's all old news. No one needs to be told that writers -- particularly
screenwriters, who are only as good as their last hit -- spend more time
obsessing than they do actually writing. It comes with the territory. Fixating on
obsession the way Brooks does is almost like making a movie about cowboys that
focuses on the arduous process of scraping the baked beans off the cooking pot
and barely touches on riding horses or rounding up cattle.

You could make the case that as the subject of a movie, obsessing is more
exciting than actually writing -- marginally. But Brooks brings nothing new to
all the old struggles. No one needs another scene in which a smug Hollywood
honcho who's barely old enough to shave baldly tells a screenwriter that his
latest script sucks, but "The Muse" has one. Then Brooks tries to dig even
deeper, struggling to dramatize, and thus expose the banality of, the
idea-generating process: You visit an aquarium, and you're
inspired to make it the setting for your next movie; then you devise a character
who inherits the aquarium (yeah, that's it!); and so on. Brooks is riffing
on the concept that in Hollywood there are no genuinely new ideas, and to an
extent he's right. But for all his complaining to the press about
lowest-common-denominator humor, his own picture isn't nearly as original or as entertaining as other movies of the summer (like "South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut" or "American Pie"). If he'd stop bludgeoning us with his one rusty tire-iron of a concept -- that all creative people are slaves to their neuroses -- he might be able to make some progress.

The strange thing about "The Muse" is the way Brooks squanders his one good idea:
Frustrated and blocked, Steven Phillips seeks the help of a real-life daughter of
Zeus named Sarah, played by the valiant but floundering Sharon Stone, who's
supposedly able to bestow divine inspiration on any director or writer who
manages to get (and stay) on her good side. The services she provides have
nothing to do with sex: Sarah doesn't deign to sleep with her clients, but she is
a kind of kept woman with a list of special requirements. She demands that
Phillips pick up the tab for a fancy suite at the Four Seasons. She calls him at
his home in the middle of the night in tears, wanting a Waldorf salad -- would he
drive out and bring it to her? She graciously accepts offerings from Tiffany's
from her clients past and present, tossing each new one onto a heap of similar
pale-blue beribboned boxes (a gag that's funny the first time you see it).
Eventually realizing she can't sleep well at her Four Seasons suite, Sarah
wangles her way into Phillips' home. This is not a problem with Phillips' wife, Laura
(Andie MacDowell in the latest in her series of strong-yet-supportive wife
roles), who was at first understandably suspicious of Sarah but has been won over
by the way the muse has encouraged her to start her own cookie business. In fact,
Sarah seems to be doing Laura more good than she is Phillips -- a variation on
the old joke of the lucky guy who finds himself in a threesome with two awesome
babes, only to realize it's the girls who are having all the fun.

But as "The Muse" chugs along, it becomes more apparent how tired and pointless it
is. Stone is great fun in her first few scenes, pouty and perky and brattily
demanding, a rosy-cheeked vision decked out in floaty ice-blue velvets and
chiffons. But it's not long before she starts to do nothing but grate: She's not
playing a sly woman who knows how to get what she wants, but a deceptively
cherubic harpy who whines and wheedles until she grinds down all resistance.
Stone's timing and her sharpness should lend themselves beautifully to comedy, but the character Brooks has written leaves her stranded (and the revelation of
where Sarah came from is dopily predictable). Jeff Bridges, as the fellow writer who introduces Phillips to Sarah, glides through the role with his usual charm, but his character isn't much of a presence. MacDowell -- who sneakily emerged as a subtle and intuitive actress instead of just a blandly pretty face in "Unstrung
Heroes" -- is asked to do nothing more than play the old clichi of the
"traditional" wife who's really wise and all-knowing. And Brooks schleps his way
through the whole movie, whining and kvetching and carrying around just the right
number of middle-aged pouches and jowls, a cartoon pack mule for the over-40
sad-sack set.

"The Muse" tries hard to skewer all the old ridiculous Hollywood machinations,
but isn't nearly as pointedly and deliciously nasty as, say, Robert Altman's 1992
"The Player." It does feature amusing cameos from a bunch of famous directors everyone has heard of, and their scenes are like sips of water in the desert.
And "The Muse" is a marginal improvement over Brooks' last feature, "Mother,"
only because it features a lead actress who tries to deliver a real performance
instead of Debbie Reynolds' strained efforts to add vinegar to her old
winkly-and-twinkly act.

But "The Muse" is all too similar to "Mother" in the worst ways. In the earlier
movie, Brooks' character (again, a faltering writer) moves back in with his
mother to unlock the secrets of his neuroses. In "The Muse," he moves a different
kind of mother figure into his own home, hoping she can cure his ills. Under the
auspices of trying to deliver intelligent adult comedies, why does Brooks -- an
undeniably talented man, and a very funny one -- keep writing and playing these
characters who are essentially looking for chicken soup for the soul? It's time
for him to stop stroking and start writing already. He's not exactly going blind
yet -- but he's getting there.

Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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