The Muse

on August 27, 1999 by Wade Major
   Screenwriter Steven Phillips (Albert Brooks) has lost his edge. At least that's what everyone keeps telling him. Yesterday he was an Oscar-nominated scribe; today he's a middle-aged has-been.
   Figuratively speaking, Steven has lost his muse. Yet, in a very literal sense he's about to get a new one--a real, honest-to-the-Greek-gods Muse named Sarah (Sharon Stone) who promises to put his career right back on top where it belongs. But Sarah's help will come at a price--for Steven and his family--that just might cost him a good portion of his sanity along the way.
   In the hands of anyone but Albert Brooks, such high-concept cleverness would be ripe for lowest-common-denominator exploitation. Being humorists of the more sophisticated variety, however, Brooks and longtime co-writer Monica Johnson mine their material for its less obvious richness, striking a happy lode of unpredictable twists and wonderfully introspective, offbeat humor. By painting Sarah as a kind of spoiled child who insists on having clients bow to her every whim, "The Muse" offers a compelling metaphor for the neuroses and inner struggles inherent in the creative process.
   At the same time, the film is careful not to take its own preoccupations too seriously, for Steven, too, is a bit of a child--at times so whiny and insecure that Sarah's idiosyncrasies seem mature by comparison. Such lovably forlorn cynics, of course, are a Brooks specialty--benign killjoys custom-tailored to voice his own unique brand of deadpan pessimism. The big surprise this time out is how overtly autobiographical the character seems to be, venting frustrations which, for the first time, Brooks is unafraid to claim as his own.
   But Brooks' films rarely wallow in poignancy for too long before stepping up the antics, manifest here as a first-rate Hollywood satire that fearlessly goes so far as to even name names. Agents, executives, directors, actors and even writers are given their lumps--many showing up to do the on-screen damage themselves in a cascade of self-deprecating cameos.
   Stone's dizzy Muse, however, is the film's most delightful surprise, providing an energetic counterpoint to Brooks' neurotic fatalism that reveals an exceptionally gifted comedienne beneath the glamorous exterior. Wedged between these two extremes is Andie MacDowell in a wonderful turn as Steven's endlessly forbearing wife Laura.
   Detractors may choose to fixate on similarities to previous Brooks films, namely 1997's popular "Mother," in which Brooks seeks to resolve a different set of life-crippling issues through an equally distressed relationship. Such caviling, though, overlooks the broader point that Brooks' movies are really part of a greater, ongoing work-in-progress.
   Like Woody Allen, to whom he is often compared, Brooks is a studious social satirist whose observations cannot be fairly appreciated within the parameters of any one film. Unlike Woody Allen, he has yet to receive the recognition he so richly deserves.    Starring Albert Brooks, Sharon Stone and Andie MacDowell. Directed by Albert Brooks. Written by Albert Brooks & Monica Johnson. Produced by Herb Nanas. An October release. Comedy. Rated PG-13 for brief nudity. Running time: 97 min.
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