THE MUSE (1999) **3/4
I really don't know what the significance of all this is, except that the four Brooks are brothers in talent. And that I like all of them A lot.
Albert Brooks was born to the radio comedian Harry Einstein, who thought it would be funny to name his son Albert. Albert-now-Brooks has been all over the big and the small screen. The Muse is the sixth film he has directed -- after Real Life, Modern Romance, Lost in America, Defending Your Life, and Mother.
He is a funny man, an artist and "auteur" who, somewhat like Woody Allen, variously puts his neuroses and insecurities on the screen, along with a sort of pessimistic view of fellow humans, society, values and all that, as his titles indicate.
The Muse fits well into Albert's "oeuvre," but adds the problems of an aging man. Brooks (now 52) plays Steven, a Hollywood screen writer married, with children (wife Laura is played by Andie MacDowell), With at least 17 scripts to his credit and a single Oscar nomination, this makes him only a mid-tier success, but in showbiz it still means a lot of money.
Having received a Humanitarian award which he does not take too seriously (he explains to his youngest daughter that it's what they give people who have no Oscars), the writer, who puts a lot of faith in his latest script, is shocked to hear from his producer that he, Steven, has "lost his edge. " This translates into becoming a pariah in Tinseltown.
The first part of the movie, with Steven's bewilderment and growing despair, is a familiar but still colorfully clever expose of the film business shallowness, stupidity, cruelty, fake friendships, hypocrisy, opportunism, etc. Unlike most older, traditional satires on this theme, The Muse, in keeping with today's trends, brings out the true fact of studio executives being younger than ever ( practically "kids"), ignoramuses with no brains, judgment, experience, knowledge of film, its past, its history.
This is an aspect that could and should have been expanded, but Brooks, instead of going for the jugular, decided to switch from realism to fantasy. He had a gimmick.
Helpless and panicky Steven goes to true pal Jeff Bridges for help. The latter avows that his recent success (look at his manor house!) came from having a Muse, a true descendant of ancient Greece's mythological daughters of Zeus.
Since Hollywood people will believe anything, Steven contacts her. She is Sarah (Sharon Stone), a chic and weirder than weird creature whom prospective clients must approach with outrageously expensive gifts from Tiffany's. "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts" gets a nice twist here.
How Sarah works her magic is not really explained. Somehow she does it by simply being there and occasionally correcting some ideas pitched by filmmakers. As a muse, she inspires, but she's also like mythology's Pythia who delivered pithy oracles.
Sarah, at first, second and subsequent sights, feels like an air-head, a capricious, spoiled beauty. She charges no fees, but Steven absolutely must cater to all her many whims, starting with her moving from a guest house which now bores her to the Four Seasons Hotel. She specifies what and where her suite must be, that she needs a limousine, and other extravagances. Of course Steven foots this bill ($1,700 a night) and the rest, becomes her errand boy and must obey all of her eccentricities.
His finances suffer, as does, initially, his marriage, until his suspicious wife believes the unbelievable, in fact makes friends with Sarah who, in another move, invades the couple's home. The next invention comes when, on Sarah's advice, Laura becomes her own capitalist. In the meantime, Sarah's presence has given Steven a bright idea (actually dumb but with box-office potential) for a new film.
Brooks the actor can be maniacal, as here, which may or may not be your cup of tea. It is, for me, even though his Steven is not especially likable. Brooks the writer-director is a balloon-deflator. The Muse is no exception. Sharon Stone, in a wonderful --if one-tone--performance, plays her mysterious self to the hilt. Is she a devilishly clever, inventive gold-digger or what? An answer comes near the end, but it neither satisfactory nor convincing.
The fakeness and crassness of Hollywood are, I repeat, not given enough play, except for some comic and/or funny-painful bits. No longer persona grata at a studio, Steven forced to park his car where the proles do sweats out miles on foot for his appointment with Mr. Spielberg -- who turns out to Steven Spielberg's know-nothing cousin. It is a hilarious scene. Or else, at a reception at Spago ( Wolfgang Puck's super-trendy eatery), Steven and an European with impenetrable English have a discussion that would enchant Groucho Marx.
There are many walk-on roles or cameos by movie celebrities, some of them Sarah's clients. Note the constant plugs for Spago. Confusions and mixups a la Feydeau work well. Some details are clever, such as Steven's not being tanned as so many others are.
The message of the movie has to be that if you're down and out in Beverly Hills, the very fact of believing that a muse can help you makes you help yourself.
In essence, No Muse is Good Muse.