Calling Mount Olympus
What is it they say -- that even a flea can reach Mount Olympus riding in Pegasus' mane? Well, in the case of the new Albert Brooks comedy The Muse, Brooks is the flea and Pegasus is his delectable costar, Sharon Stone.
But I get ahead of myself.
In The Muse, which the director-star wrote with his frequent collaborator Monica Johnson, Brooks plays Steven Phillips, a successful Hollywood screenwriter who, according to the studio execs, his agent, and nearly everyone except his wife, Laura (Andie MacDowell), has lost his edge, run out of gas, hit the wall. An enticing situation, certainly, though one that in Brooks' case may strike closer to the truth than perhaps the filmmaker would care to admit.
As soon as Steven absorbs the shock of learning that he has lost it, he sets out immediately to get it back. Unable to do what most people suggest and take a year off to recharge his batteries, Steven takes Laura's advice and calls on his old friend, Jack (a very smooth and relaxed Jeff Bridges), for advice. Unfortunately Jack, who experienced his own problems with inspiration, is as wrapped up in himself as nearly everyone else in the movie business. However, when Steven mentions the attractive blonde (Stone) he saw his friend help into a cab, Jack gets an idea: She helped me -- maybe she can help you. Of course, what Steven was hoping for was an actual job, or at the very least an introduction to someone who might give him one. What he gets is something much more classical -- a meeting with one of the nine daughters of Zeus. A muse.
Her name is Sarah, and according to everyone who has worked with her, your life will never be the same again once she takes you on. Brother, they are not kidding. To benefit from the guidance of this hipster ancient, one must follow a strict set of rules that seems to change and grow at the whim of the moment. If, for example, Sarah says she needs to be installed in a suite at the Four Seasons, you get her the suite. ("One of the higher floors, please.") If she wants a Waldorf salad and bobby pins at 2 o'clock in the morning, you don't argue; you get them for her. After all, you do want that Oscar, don't you? It's like catering to a cranky infant with very expensive and hard-to-satisfy tastes -- or, of course, to a very big movie star.
What makes this part so perfect for Stone and, in turn, so hilariously entertaining, is that it allows the actress to play off her image as a high-maintenance diva. In this instance, though, Stone doesn't rant and rave or chew on the luxurious scenery. Instead she slinks around in an endless collection of what look to be very fetching, pricey pajamas, dropping hints about what might -- or might not -- happen if, say, she can't move from the hotel into your guest house. Or how her powers might suffer if she can't get her sleep because the paint job in her (your) bedroom is too bright. It's a quiet, sure, remarkably confident performance she gives, especially for someone playing comedy for the first time.
Unfortunately The Muse is a better showcase for Stone's comic talents than it is for either Brooks or MacDowell. As Steven, Brooks is required mostly to kvetch about the ways in which Sarah, muse or no muse, has disrupted his life. It's not as if Sarah waves a magic wand over Steven's iMac or commands an audience with Martin Scorsese or Jim Cameron -- both of whom make cameo appearances as former clients who have had their careers turned around through her mysterious auspices. (A word to the wise, fellas: Keep your day jobs.) She can only inspire, influence, help hone a concept here, suggest changing the context there.
The way Brooks and Johnson have set it up is as graceful as it is intelligent. Sarah, it seems, can only open the door for the brilliance and creativity that is already inside her clients, not manufacture these qualities out of whole cloth. It is a lovely note, really, and far more godly than if she conjured them out of thin air like a genie. And so to Wolfgang Puck, who makes an appearance as himself, she says, "Pizza. With goat cheese, maybe." And the rest is history.
In the past MacDowell has seemed the perfect foil for her comic leading men, but unlike Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, Brooks doesn't seem right for her. Or perhaps it's just the hard-to-believe notion that one would have to go looking elsewhere for inspiration when he has Andie MacDowell at home. Murray had to win MacDowell, while on the other hand Brooks already has her, and it begins to look like bad form when he doesn't appreciate the blessings the gods have already bestowed.
As it is, Sarah seems far more interested in Laura than she is in Steven. Laura, as it turns out, bakes marvelous cookies. Everybody thinks so, especially Sarah. Next thing you know Sarah's calling the aforementioned Puck to give him a taste, and Laura's taking out a lease on an old bakery to keep up with her orders. All Sarah does with Steven is drag him to an aquarium and drop a couple of vague suggestions.
While admittedly much of what Brooks presents here is knowing and crisply conceived, the material turns out to be far soggier in the execution than perhaps it appeared in the telling or on the page. As a satirist Brooks is able to get in his jabs, but none of his blows against the empire registers with anything approaching lethal ferocity. In Real Life, Modern Romance, and Lost in America, Brooks established himself as the master of neurotic romanticism as well as the funniest clinical depressive of his period. But his last three films -- Defending Your Life, Mother, and now The Muse -- haven't delivered on the promise of the first three.
The ending here, during which Sarah is exposed as an escapee from a mental hospital, falls particularly flat. I mean, who cares if she calls herself Alexander the Great? If she can get Rob Reiner and Wolfgang Puck on the phone and your agent can't, she's some kind of deity, isn't she? Let me be clear -- Brooks can still get a laugh out of most of us even when the line isn't all that funny. He has that gift. But it's not as if you don't register the faltering quality of the material even while you're laughing. He's right, too, to echo the movie's premise, that nothing drastic is called for -- just the honing of a concept here, an adjustment in the context there. Nothing that might call for an intervention by the gods.
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