The Muse

Lately, Albert Brooks has been concerned about the growing trend in gross-out comedies. He’s talked about doing a parody of them, which he’d like to call The Big Stupid Dumb Movie. While we wait for that project, though, we may have to settle for Brooks’ usual stock in trade — small smart witty movies. The Muse is one such movie, and though it doesn’t scale the comic heights of his 1985 classic Lost in America (few movies could), it’s still wiser and funnier than almost everything else out there.

As always, Brooks plays the neurotic, well-to-do schlub, this time under the name Steven Phillips, a veteran Hollywood screenwriter who’s just won a Humanitarian award. For what? Well, for being a veteran Hollywood screenwriter who presumably hasn’t been caught doing anything stupid in public; also as a consolation prize for never winning an Oscar. As if to reverse his fortunes, Steven is told by a fresh-faced studio executive that he’s “lost his edge.” (That’s Hollywood talk for “You’re past 50 and you don’t understand how to write movies for teenagers any more.”) He’s relieved of his studio office, and he goes into writer’s block.

Nothing short of magic can restore Steven’s career, and fortunately a fellow screenwriter (a laid-back Jeff Bridges) tips him off to a good source: Sarah Little (Sharon Stone), a mysterious and flighty woman who acts as a muse to the creative powers in Hollywood. Gleefully tacky and loaded with baubles from grateful clients, Sarah might have stepped out of a Francesca Lia Block young-adult novel about the taffy-colored goddesses of L.A., where shallowness has its own magic. (Steve Martin also worked this side of the street in L.A. Story: “I was really unhappy, but I didn’t notice because I was so happy all the time.”) Sarah agrees to take Steven on as a client if he’ll place himself at her constant service. Meanwhile, Sarah takes a liking to Steven’s wife Laura (Andie MacDowell, atypically charming here), encouraging her to open her own cookie business.

If you choose not to take The Muse (or Sarah) literally, it’s a fable about the fickleness of creativity. For, of course, no writer can consciously sit there and think of good ideas, which is why most writers can’t answer the time-honored question “Where do you get your ideas?” They just arrive, amidst a lot of time-wasting (and a lot of bad ideas, too). Sarah, played by Stone with a cheerful material-girl twinkle that’s like the funhouse-mirror version of her Casino gold-digger, doesn’t really do anything for Steven except get him to spend money. It’s during incidental moments, when she drags him to an aquarium, that inspiration strikes. The fact that Steven’s idea for a script sounds like The Big Stupid Dumb Movie only adds to Brooks’ gentle satire of Hollywood, in which bad ideas become great ideas if a star is attached.

The true source of inspiration in The Muse, though, isn’t Sarah but Brooks himself, as an actor as well as writer-director. Lines that might be mildly funny on paper — “I’m not six. I want a meal” in response to Laura’s invitation to have a cookie — become small classics with Brooks’ exhausted, slightly whiny delivery. The Muse is also fun for movie buffs, who will appreciate the cameos by a strangely docile James Cameron and a mega-caffeinated Martin Scorsese (who really should act more often). And there’s a spectacularly surreal conversation at a restaurant party, between Steven and a guy with a shaky command of English who tries to figure out what Steven does for a living. A writer? Oh, you mean you do the writing on cakes? And essentially, the guy isn’t far off; a Hollywood writer does the writing on big stupid dumb cakes, and if he writes on enough successful cakes, he gets a Humanitarian award.

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