The Muse (1999)
Directed by Albert Brooks
Cast: Albert Brooks, Sharon Stone, Andie MacDowell, Jeff Bridges, Mark Feuerstein, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Jennifer Tilly, Rob Reiner.
1999 97 minutes
Rated: (for mild profanity and brief, partial nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, August 28, 1999.
Writer-director Albert Brooks continuously makes sharp, meticulously-written comedies, and that he has refused to reform over the years to "potty" humor in the vein of Jim Carrey or Adam Sandler is a commendable decision. Brooks can't win 'em all, though, as proven by his latest picture, "The Muse," a Hollywood satire, which lacks the warmth and human interest of 1996's "Mother," the zany entertainment of 1985's "Lost in America," and the whimsical aspect of 1991's "Defending Your Life." Sloppy and superficial, "The Muse" has some sizable laughs in its 97-minute running time, but midway through it veers off-course and becomes repetitive, with a final twist at the end that is completely unjustified and a strong sign of last-minute reshooting and tinkering. If the last ten minutes are the way Brooks originally wrote and envisioned them, then my question to him is: "What were you thinking?!"
50-year-old high-profile screenwriter Steven Phillips (Albert Brooks) is at the end of his ropes. A past nominee of an Academy Award, right after winning the Humanitarian Award for his career he is told by a harsh studio executive (Mark Feuerstein) that his past couple scripts weren't very good, and that he has "lost his edge." Talking with his friend, Jack (Jeff Bridges), a thriving fellow screenwriter, Steven is told about his secret for keeping successful: he has a muse, supposedly one of the actual daughters of Zeus, whose job is to inspire the customers she takes on. Jack convinces the muse to take on Steven as her next major client, and before they even meet, Steven is instructed to bring her a gift from Tiffany's wrapped in a blue box. The muse in question happens to be Sarah (Sharon Stone), a greedy, pampered woman who nonetheless is likable in her absolute straightforwardness, and who really does begin to inspire Steven concerning his next script, a comedy to star Jim Carrey set in an aquarium. When he is caught by his concerned wife, Laura (Andie MacDowell), buying a present at Tiffany's and shopping for groceries (including Tampons), she is reasonably apprehensive when he says he has a muse, but before long, she and Sarah have met and immediately hit it off, with Sarah even convincing Laura to go into business as a cookie baker. And by the time Sarah has moved into his home and taken over his bedroom, Steven finds his life ultimately being overrun, and starts to question if Sarah should stick around for much longer.
"The Muse" would have made a fast, enjoyably smart 45-minute short film, but at over twice that length, its story is so thin that the film begins to go through the worn-out, repeated motions, until it reaches the point of no return in the last few scenes, which become too contrived to be believed for a second. It's as if the movie was written and directed by Brooks, but through the post-production process, an evil editor with dastly designs for Brooks decided to cut off his ending and replace it with something so ludicrous and messy that it would destroy his film as a whole and leave a bad taste in every audience member's mouth.
For awhile, the film really works well. The satiric moments about Hollywood are winning and sometimes hilarious, as when Steven goes to Universal Studios to have a meeting with a guy named Spielberg, but is only allowed into the lot if he walks. "That's like nine miles from here!" Steven remarks to the security man at the front gate. "Yeah, it is pretty far," he replies. A cameo by actress Jennifer Tilly (playing herself) is also very funny, with a sly one-liner concerning her last film, "Bride of Chucky." And it was amusing to see such filmmakers as Rob Reiner, Martin Scorsese, and James Cameron make walk-ons and make "all-in-good-fun" jabs at themselves. These jokes, of course, would work better if you know a lot about film and Hollywood, in general, because if you aren't sure what Cameron or Scorsese look like (or, saddeningly, if you've never even heard of them), their scenes will go straight over your head. On the basis of similar movies that make fun of the same subject matter, "The Muse" at least works better than the decade's worst major motion picture, the laughless, inane 1998 stinker, "Burn Hollywood Burn: An Alan Smithee Film."
The highlight of "The Muse" is easily Sharon Stone's winning, spunky performance, who hasn't really ever appeared in a big comedy before. Her comic talents have been proven somewhat with 1984's "Irreconcilable Differences" and 1999's "Gloria," but it is here that Stone goes all out and runs with her showy role, which is possibly an Oscar-caliber effort. As Sarah, Stone mostly remains a figure throughout, rather than a three-dimensional creation, but this is important since the motives of the character are supposed to remain mysterious. With perfect comic timing and a stunning presence, this is Stone's strongest turn since 1995's "Casino."
Albert Brooks, as usual, plays the same type of character he always plays, a neurotic, insecure man that spits out clever one-liners like they're going out of style. He was more likable, however, in his last film, "Mother." Andie MacDowell is fine as Brooks' wife, Laura, but tellingly, is not given much to do, and her relastionship with Steven is never satisfactorily portrayed or written. At least she does something, which isn't the case with Jeff Bridges, so much better in July's "Arlington Road," who is criminally wasted in the role of Steven's best friend. Bridges shows up every once in awhile, recites a few ho-hum lines, and makes his exit without much of a chance to make any sort of impression.
The clear potential that "The Muse" possesses only makes the final product even more of a disappointment. As with his character of Steven, Brooks has finally run out of steam in his screenplay for this film, and the ending, which doesn't really solve or wrap up anything, leaves you questioning what the whole point was. Some jokes work wonders, other fall flat (Bridges' tennis scene comes to mind), and all the while it is Stone who walks aways unscathed. That final twist that the film concludes on, though--it is an outrage, and it is a cheat.
©1999 by Dustin Putman