Waiting on 'The Muse'

Albert Brooks' Hollywood-insider comedy has its moments of sharp wit, but ends up strangely shy of inspiration.

August 27, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

"The Muse," Albert Brooks' fitfully funny comedy of Hollywood manners, is a strange animal. By turns biting and breezy, it also remarkably retrograde, ultimately sacrificing wit to less interesting likability. Even though the movie is full of Brooks's characteristically caustic lines, he winds up pulling his punches, resulting in a toothless series of vignettes rather than an insider satire on a par with, say, "Bowfinger."

Not that Brooks hasn't come up with a terrific premise. He plays Steven Phillips, a middle-aged screenwriter who can feel his career sliding into irrelevance. Actually, he doesn't feel the slide as much as he is told about it when a snarky production executive informs him that he's lost "his edge." Steven has been around the industry enough to know what that means. "If I didn't have a wife and family, I'd be out buying heroin right now," he says dolefully.

But Steven soon discovers that there's help to be had, in the form of a real-life muse, descended from a long line of ancient Greek goddesses who have inspired artists throughout the ages. Indeed there's one named Sarah (Sharon Stone) living right in Beverly Hills. After Steven plies her with a box from Tiffany's and his hard-luck story, Sarah agrees to take him on as a client -- which means that Steven is now responsible for putting her up at the Four Seasons, accepting her panicked phone calls at all hours of the night and delivering everything from a Waldorf Salad to a bag of bobby pins to her room.

Of course his wife Laura (Andie MacDowell) suspects him of having an affair, especially when she spies him shopping at the local supermarket. But as Steven says, "You could never get aroused by someone who made you do this many errands."

Brooks, who co-wrote "The Muse" with Monica Johnson, spikes his movie with lots of fun cameos, and he makes sneaky fun of the twin pistons that run the engine of show business: envy and paranoia.

And there are the usual passel of vintage Brooks lines. When Steven points out that Picasso painted until he was 90, a producer replies, "Yeah, but he never wrote a hit screenplay." When Steven asks Laura if she's attracted to Sarah, Laura tells him she won't dignify the question with an answer. "Come on," he pleads. "Dignify it with a `no.' "

As witty as these moments are, "The Muse" is still weighed down with some slogging set pieces that seem warmed over from another movie (a bit in which Steven suffers the indignity of having only a walk-on pass to the Paramount lot; a superficial party at Spago). And even more objectionably, "The Muse" ultimately becomes about Steven's anxiety that Laura will make more money than he does. As a plot device to introduce conflict into an otherwise conflict-free story, it might have worked in the 1970s, but here such a crisis looks wildly out of date.

Floating serenely in diaphanous garments and sporting a number of fans like a slightly deranged geisha, Sharon Stone makes an appealing comedienne -- she plays the diva with an amalgam of hauteur and scrappy opportunism that defines the true Hollywood player.

If "The Muse" as a movie possessed the same sharp qualities as its heroine, it might have been a penetrating look at a crazy business, rather than the bland portrayal that it is. At the risk of sounding as superficial as its targets, what "The Muse" needs is more edge.

The `Muse'

Starring Albert Brooks, Sharon Stone, Andie MacDowell, Jeff Bridges

Directed by Albert Brooks

Rated PG-13 (brief nudity)

Running time: 97 minutes

Released by USA Films

Sun score:**

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