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August 27 - September 3, 1999

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Inspired nonsense

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 Muse 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.

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