Directed by Albert Brooks
Written by Brooks and Monica Johnson
With Brooks, Sharon Stone, Andie MacDowell and Jeff Bridges
Few reviews of Albert Brooks' films fail to compare him to Woody Allen, but there's one major difference between the two comic actor/writer/directors: until recently, Allen has kept his neurotic persona from crossing over into utter boorishness, while Brooks has no reservations about making himself look like a foolish jerk. In the MUSE, he plays much the same character - one might as well call him "Brooks," although he has a different name each time out - as in his five previous films: an obsessively self-absorbed, tormented man whose intelligence and wit do little to help him out of the ugly situations that frustrate him so much. If Allen invites audience identification, "Brooks" inspires an equal amount of laughter and cringing. While Allen often blurs the line between himself and his characters, the tone of Brooks' films - as well as his determination to keep his private life out of the papers - suggests plenty of distance between "Brooks" and himself. (A glance at REAL LIFE and MODERN ROMANCE shows up the self-serving nature of Allen's "critique" of himself in DECONSTRUCTING HARRY.) While DEFENDING YOUR LIFE and MOTHER presented a more likable version of "Brooks", THE MUSE goes a step further by all but abandoning a critical point of view towards him . In fact, the character could well have written and directed it.
Steven Phillips (Brooks), a has-been screenwriter who's just gotten dropped from a three-picture studio deal, turns to his far more successful friend Max (Bridges) for advice and discovers that Max hired Sarah Little (Stone), who claims to be one of the muses memorialized in Greek mythology, to provide inspiration on his latest screenplay. While Sarah's demands are high - in addition to buying presents and doing her grocery shopping, he must put her up at a luxurious hotel suite - her presence seems to help him get started on a new screenplay. Although Steven's wife Laura (Andie MacDowell) is initially rather suspicious of Sarah, she too finds inspiration to start a successful new business.
I probably overrated MOTHER when I put it on my 1996 Top 10 list, but watching THE MUSE reminded me how well that film worked both as a comedy and a genuine exploration of familial pain before its final descent into facile optimism. The pain is still present here, but with too few real laughs to balance it. As a woman who delights in ordering men around to cater to her every whim, Stone seems to be having a great time, but she and Brooks have little chemistry together. With few exceptions - the main one being a hilarious party scene set at a party for Laura - his jokes fall pretty flat. Considering how funny Bridges was in THE BIG LEBOWSKI, he's horribly under-utilized: rather than having him play a real character, Brooks simply treats him as an icon of poolside California success and WASPiness. He also trots out a host of celebrity cameos as if the presence of Rob Reiner, James Cameron or Martin Scorsese was funny in and of itself. The jokes he gives them sure aren't.
Steven keeps getting told that his career is sinking because of he's lost his "edge." Brooks may not exactly have lost his, but he's forgotten what to do with it. The feelgood aura of MOTHER' s conclusion permeates THE MUSE, thinly covering a depressing strain of self-pity that extends into the fabric of the film itself. Steven's pain stems from the bitterness of a privileged man who'd like to be a bigger player, not the soul of an artist struggling to maintain his craft under difficult circumstances. He complains that he needs a steady stream of work to support his family when someone advises him to take time off from screenwriting, yet he has no trouble springing $1,700 a day for Sarah's hotel suite. When Brooks sets up an extended gag about Steven's pathetic attempt to visit his "old friend" Steven Spielberg's office, does he really expect a paying audience to sympathize with the "humiliation" caused by the fact that Steven has to walk, rather than drive, through Spielberg's lot? Maybe it's the New Yorker in me, but my eyes remained quite dry.
Although I'm reluctant to make any great claims for the ultra-lite comedy of Frank Oz and Steve Martin's BOWFINGER, it's more consistently funny than THE MUSE, and its digs at Scientology and egotistical stars more cutting than Brooks' mild "satire" of Hollywood hacks in the sway of vapid gurus and script doctors. Brooks has never settled for lite comedy before, but THE MUSE is steeped in the kind of Hollywood provincialism that suggests he can no longer see a world outside its boundaries. Even so, the real world makes its presence felt in ways that he may not entirely have intended. It's not much of a stretch to see Steven's angst as a reflection of the resentment that Brooks, a 52-year-old filmmaker who's only been able to direct 6 films in 22 years, may feel. However, Steven thinks inspiration lies in ripping off old TV shows, while Brooks made MODERN ROMANCE and LOST IN AMERICA, two of the best American films of the 80s. THE MUSE offers no insight into the kind of creativity that went into them (or how he was able to make such idiosyncratic films in the self-deluded Hollywood he describes), only a clever concept and lots of flat jokes. Can "Brooks" please let his creator back into the driver's seat next time?