The Muse
directed by Albert Brooks
(October Films, 1999)

Forget Mother Theresa, Albert Schweitzer and Nelson Mandela. When Hollywood screenwriter Steven Phillips earns The Humanitarian Award from his peers, his daughter Mary is confused: "What's a 'humanitarian'?" Steven heaves a huge sigh. It is, he explains, "someone who's never won an Oscar."

It's a typical Albert Brooks moment and, coming as it does in the first 10 minutes of The Muse, it lets you know what you're in for. If you like Brooks, who directed, co-wrote and stars in the film, you'll find The Muse amusing. But if Brooks' character, which has essentially the same tics from film to film, has fallen flat for you, go rent his early Modern Romance instead.

Brooks has made a career of writing characters (many of them with his co-conspirator here, Monica Johnson, who also worked with Brooks on Mother and Lost in America) who have lost their edge -- or who never have found their edge. And screenwriter Steven is no exception. The young guy at the studio pans his newest script. Everyone is telling him he's finished. And the only Spielberg Steven can get a meeting with is Stan Spielberg, the great director's cousin.

So, despite two wonderful daughters and a devoted wife, Laura (Andie MacDowell), his huge house and his Mercedes, Steven is at his wit's end. "I have a family to feed!" he panics (So sell the Mercedes!). At Laura's urging, Steven pours out his worries to his buddy Jack, whose even larger house and tennis court shout "Success!" at the kvetching Steven. And Jack comes through, not with a call to an agent, or a studio head, but to a muse. A real muse, he insists. A daughter of Zeus. And everyone who's anyone in Hollywood has what he has because of the muse.

"Stop by Tiffany's" Jack urges Steven. Buy muse Sarah a gift. "I don't shop for my wife at Tiffany's!" says an appalled Steven. "Your wife," says Jack, "can't save your career." Enough said. Steven stops at Tiffany's and, in typical Brooks fashion, tries to mollify the muse with the cheapest thing he can find, a silver keychain. In short order, he finds himself with a long list of requirements, a suite at the Four Seasons for Sarah, bigger bills at Tiffany's and a wife who'd like to know exactly who all this stuff is for.

Things start to click for Steven, and the movie, when muse Sharon Stone is onscreen. She is demanding. She is charming. She is weepy when her suite is too bright, or when room service won't deliver Waldorf salad at 2 a.m. There are cameos of other writers and directors who come calling for Sarah's inspiration. There apparently never would have been a Raging Bull or Titanic without her guidance.

The Muse bogs when Sarah begins to pay more attention to Laura's dreams than Steven's, and when questions arise about just how real a muse Sarah is. Who cares? But when Brooks concentrates on his gentle sendup of Hollywood's fleeting fame, it's an affectionate satire of a glitzy business.

[ by Jen Kopf ]

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