A Muse in Search of a Script

The Muse

The two movies at which I’ve had the most fun in the past 15 or so years both came courtesy of Albert Brooks. In each, Brooks played weenie-boy whiners in search of something important: courage (Defending Your Life) or the reason all his relationships with women fail (Mother).

In The Muse, the Brooks character isn’t looking for anything nearly so deep; he just wants a good script — something Brooks could have used as well.

Albert plays Steven Phillips, a screenwriter who (everyone tells him) has lost his edge. When his friend (Jeff Bridges, without any real character) says that a flesh-and-blood Muse (as in, a daughter of Zeus) might be able to help him, Steven jumps at the chance.

His eagerness, though, prevents him from asking the obvious questions: How does it work? What does The Muse require? How will my wife react?

So when The Muse turns out to be a moody, demanding Sharon Stone, Steven has only himself to blame. The Muse at first wants a $1,500-a-night hotel suite, but then she wants to move in with Steven. Then she seems to be of more assistance to the wife (Andie MacDowell) than the man of the house. Cameos by famous people round out the film.

The trouble starts with the premise, which in human terms is simply too hard to swallow too many times. The setup obviously aims toward farce, but Brooks’ approach is too unfanciful, too grounded in reality, to allow for greater suspension of disbelief. And by-the-numbers plotting (a regular Brooks problem) certainly doesn’t help matters.

But more importantly, Brooks as director and co-writer (with frequent collaborator Monica Johnson) creates not a single fleshy character. Stone makes for a prickly Muse, but her performance is severely circumscribed by the story. Other performers fare even less well, because the writing serves to move the characters from plot point to joke to plot point, without any interest in who they are.

This is especially problematic when it comes to Brooks himself, who has never been a particularly likable performer. In Defending Your Life and Mother, he avoided this issue by giving his characters near-universal faults taken to extremes. In The Muse, he’s just a self-obsessed, over-the-hill Hollywood type. The only thing the character genuinely seems to feel is self-pity for his eunuch-like emasculation. (This marks the return of Brooks’ aggressive fear and loathing of women, largely absent since Modern Romance nearly two decades before this movie.) Both Steven’s wife and The Muse (in his mind) exist primarily to annoy and befuddle him, when instead they should be serving his needs and his honor.

At best, The Muse is a mild and erratically amusing satire of Hollywood. Brooks has some of his career’s best gags with a visit to the office a certain Spielberg (the famous director’s cousin Stan, played by an increasingly hygiene-challenged Steven Wright), with a long conversation in which everything Brooks says is misunderstood, and with self-parodying cameos by James Cameron and Martin Scorsese. But without anything else, The Muse never generates any momentum and feels aimless, tired, and uninspired. Leaving the theater, I found myself appropriating one of Brooks’ lines: The Muse. The Muse. The god-damned Muse.

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