At his best there is no funnier or sharper comic in America than Albert Brooks, but in his new movie The Muse, which he also directed, and co-wrote with Monica Johnson, he’s nowhere near top form. He’s playing a Hollywood screenwriter, Steven Phillips, who has lost his “edge,” and Brooks may be all too invested in the role. Steven has a lumpy, haggard look, and Brooks seems haggard playing him; the portrayal and the person are all of a piece. In his other movies Brooks has often lolled in the doldrums, but there was also something spiky and bearish about him. The classic Brooks persona – best represented by the intrusive TV documentarian in Real Life and the rampaging adman in his Winnebago in Lost in America, both of which he directed – is part con artist, part crybaby, part heckler, all narcissist. He isn’t likable, really, but you put up with him because you never know what zigzag inklings will issue from his brainpan. After awhile, putting up with him becomes part of the fun. His maddening, self-absorbed malaise is more jocose than everybody else’s good manners.
The Muse is supposed to show how a washed-up screenwriter recovers his inspiration by hooking up with what appears to be a real-life daughter of Zeus. Sarah (Sharon Stone) is the secret muse of a chosen few in Hollywood; Steven’s moviemaker best friend, Jack (Jeff Bridges), whose fortunes have skyrocketed, first turns him on to her services, and subsequently Rob Reiner, James Cameron, and Martin Scorsese, playing themselves, put in appearances as grateful clients. (Scorsese, in a scattershot, rat-a-tat cameo, divulges his latest Sarah-inspired bright idea: a remake of Raging Bull featuring “a really thin guy.”) Sarah doesn’t do any real creative work herself; she’s more like a pop-psych therapist, coaxing brainstorms from Steven that revive his confidence and set him on the road to manna.
Beyond being told that Steven isn’t good at “action,” it’s never made clear to us what kind of screenwriter he is or even if, despite his one Oscar nomination, he was ever truly good. And there’s a logic to this, since The Muse, despite its premise, isn’t really about regaining inspiration; it’s about being bankable – staying in the game. It’s a Hollywood comedy that plays by Hollywood rules: Brooks doesn’t question the win-win values of the schlock factory even though, implicitly, his entire career until now has pretty much been a slam at those values.
Brooks is a child of show business – his father, Harry Einstein, worked with Eddie Cantor and was Parkyakarkus on the radio. By the time he’d recorded comedy albums in the mid-seventies like A Star Is Bought and made his short films for Saturday Night Live’s debut season, Brooks had already been a regular on the big TV variety and talk shows hosted by Dean Martin, Ed Sullivan, Merv Griffin, Johnny Carson. Smart and almost deliriously hangdog, Brooks was a screwball prodigy; he appealed to the Hollywood Palace crowd, but he also appealed to audiences who wanted to storm the palace.
The Muse might have been redeemed if Brooks had gotten inside his own love-hate romance with the crassness of Hollywood – if he’d made a comedy about the passion for trash that goes hand in hand with the passion for success. This is what Steve Martin achieved in Bowfinger, in which a bargain-bin movie producer goes from schlockmeister to auteur and connives his way to glory. What ultimately made Bowfinger, for all its satirical jabs, such a sweet experience was the notion that junk dealers crave transcendence, too. In The Muse, we observe Steven Phillips tooling around in his Mercedes or admiring his friend’s Bel-Air estate, and there’s no irony in what we see – no “edge,” to co-opt the film’s terms. Steve doesn’t really get turned on by the business, or even, beyond their commercial potential, by his own ideas. He’s a rather blah presence, and so is his wife, Laura, who also gets helped by the muse and is played by Andie MacDowell as if she hadn’t quite shaken off a hypnotherapy session.
Sharon Stone is at the opposite extreme from MacDowell: She’s motormouthed and strenuously flitty, like a madcap comedian who hasn’t figured out why she’s being funny. Not that she has a whole lot to work with. Sarah, in exchange for her services, demands from Steven a limo and a suite at the Four Seasons; she calls him at all hours and has him shop for her and do her dry cleaning, and when that isn’t enough, she moves into his house. She’s like a movie diva ravenous for perks. It’s a one-joke role: the muse who came to dinner. What Sarah doesn’t comprehend is that her sessions with Steven are basically a lost cause, since, win or lose, he doesn’t really have it in him to be happy anyway. Maybe he’s meant to, but with Brooks’s blotto-ness here, who can tell?
What’s happened to Brooks in this movie – and to a lesser extent in his last two films, Mother and Defending Your Life – can’t all be explained away by lackluster material or personal doldrums. It must be that he sees this funk as a higher truth. In the movies he appears in directed by others, such as, most recently, Out of Sight and Critical Care, he seems unfettered in a way he doesn’t with his recent “personal” projects – which bring out in him the sogginess of good intentions. Mother got high marks from critics for being more than just a Brooksian mother-son satire, when some of us would have been pleased to have had just that instead of the touchy-feely psychodrama it turned into. The Muse wants us to know that we don’t need a muse, that we have it in us to be successful if only we trust ourselves. If this movie is a product of that philosophy, we’re all in trouble.