For Albert Brooks, The Muse is good
by Peter Keough
*** THE MUSE Directed by Albert Brooks. Written by Albert Brooks and Monica
Johnson. With Albert Brooks, Sharon Stone, Andie MacDowell, Jeff Bridges,
Monica Mikala, Jamie Alexis, Mark Feuerstein, Wolfgang Puck, James Cameron,
Martin Scorsese, Rob Reiner, Jennifer Tilly, Cybill Shepherd, and Lorenzo
Lamas. An October Films release. At Framingham, the Hoyt Westborough,
Leominster, the Solomon Pond Hoyt, and the Worcester North Showcase.
The fruits of divine inspiration have deteriorated over the years, from the
Iliad and the Odyssey to Jim Carrey comedies and designer baked
goods. But that doesn't make would-be artists any less desperate. Comics are
particularly hard up -- you can't fake a laugh, and failure tends to make you
take your funny business a little too seriously. Woody Allen has been
struggling to recapture his muse since Stardust Memories, confusing it
with self-reflexive piffle and liaisons with the underaged. Steve Martin, too,
has taken the navel-gazing direction to make a film about the impossibility of
making a film in the fitfully unfunny Bowfinger. Even Carrey has turned
inward in his upcoming Man on the Moon, a bio-pic of one of the most
screwed-up comics of all time, Andy Kaufman.
Leave it to Albert Brooks to be the voice of reason in this matter. He tackled
a version of the problem in one of his first films, the 1975 PBS Great
American Dream Machine episode "Albert Brooks' Famous School of Comedy."
And he's brought his humane, absurdist logic to other, equally overwhelming
topics: reality (Real Life), love (Modern Romance), freedom
(Lost in America), death (Defending Your Life), and motherhood
(Mother). His method is to make the unthinkable absurdly literal -- he
actually dies in Defending Your Life, his mother moves in in
Mother -- and allow the logical, hilarious, often comforting
consequences to follow. Such is his method in The Muse, and though this
is not his most uproarious work, it is one of his most ruefully felt, tenderly
provoking, and, well, amusing.
The muse here is, yes, an everyday reality. Sarah Little (a girlishly adept
Sharon Stone) is a kind of latter-day Thalia, the muse of comedy and light
verse, who's now turning her attention to such LA commodities as screenplays
and entrees at Spagos. No one needs her services more than Steven Phillips
(Albert Brooks), a veteran Hollywood screenwriter who's first seen winning a
humanitarian award for lifetime achievement ("It's for people who don't win an
Oscar," he replies to his daughter's inquiry) but finds in short order that
he's lost his edge, his office at Paramount, and presumably his career.
As a middle-aged man facing the void of no return, Brooks has it all over
Steve Martin in Bowfinger -- his beefy, fading face crossed with
bitterness, courteous deference, wry bemusement, and seething despair ("Do you
know The Shining?" he explodes at one point. "I feel jealous of
him! At least he had a sentence!") is one of the film's greatest comic
assets. With a wife, Laura (Andie MacDowell, in one of her heftier
performances), and two kids to support, though, he's not about to turn to
heroin, as he threatens to his friend and Oscar-winning fellow scribe Jack
(Jeff Bridges). Instead, he takes up a heroine. It seems the muse called on by
Homer, Milton, Shelley, and the like also pitched in on the making of such
films as The American President and The Truman Show. Reluctantly,
Jack gives Steven Sarah's address.
After an initial investment of a $50 key ring from Tiffany, however, Steven
finds maintaining a muse in Beverly Hills is no cheap date. Unhappy when her
$1700 suite at the Four Seasons can't provide a Waldorf salad after midnight,
Sarah moves into the Phillipses' guest house. A less inventive filmmaker might
have pursued the obvious course at this point -- Steven falls in love with the
muse and Laura gets jealous, forcing a choice between domestic peace and
artistic productivity. Instead, Laura and Sarah have lunch and go shopping,
they bond (though Brooks draws the line at monkey business), and the muse stirs
Laura's latent desire to redo her life as a cookie impresario, making
Steven the jealous one.
Slyly, Brooks turns his seeming male-chauvinist premise into a fable of
gender roles, personal fulfillment, and the nature of chance, personal
responsibility, and genius. No wonder there are a few weak spots. For example,
the filmscript that Sarah nudges Steven into writing, something godawful
involving an aquarium, sick fish, an oil well, and, inevitably, Jim Carrey --
is that supposed to be funny, or "funny"? The irony is not always acidly clear.
But the hilarity is usually, and painfully, obvious. As with most divine
matters, it's in the details -- a pile of tennis balls on one side of a net,
Brooks remarking "Is that blood?" as he leaves a studio executive's office, a
thin and angry Martin Scorsese pounding on the muse's door, later ranting
"Thin! Angry!" -- that the inspiration lies.