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Albert Brooks could've used more inspiration for The Muse.

By Coury Turczyn

SEPTEMBER 13, 1999:  Albert Brooks has lost his edge.

Or at least that's the sadly ironic plot point in his latest writing/directing/starring vehicle, The Muse. Brooks plays a semi-prominent Hollywood screenwriter who suddenly finds himself out of work when everybody thinks he's over the hill. Likewise, Brooks himself has never seemed quite so flat, so uninspired as he does in this pleasantly familiar comedy. It's as if his own character wrote the screenplay.

Brooks has long been considered Hollywood's most underrated comedic filmmaker, and despite having to live with his "Woody Allen of the West Coast" label, he's delivered a string of uniquely witty films, from Real Life (1979) to Mother (1997). All of them featured Brooks' whiny, neurotic alter-ego trapped in ever-tightening spirals of self-obsessed behavior, while also making sharply satirical observations about our American way of life. He's a one-of-kind moviemaker, the type who'll never produce a blockbuster but who you imagine puts together deals whenever he lucks into a studio exec who still has a portion of soul intact. With only five films in 20 years, each one is considered a gem by his devoted fans; but number six, The Muse, isn't as sparkly an addition to the pantheon as many had hoped.

Brooks stars as Steven Phillips, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter who has also just received a humanitarian award at a black tie dinner; supported by his proud wife Laura (Andie MacDowell) and his beloved daughters, he's on top of the world. The next morning he gets canned by his twentysomething studio boss who claims Steven has "lost his edge." Miserable at his inability to find work, he turns to his fabulously successful screenwriter pal Jack (Jeff Bridges) for advice. Jack reveals his own trade secret: He has a muse. And not just any run-of-the-mill muse, but rather a genuine Muse of Greek mythology fame. A daughter of Zeus. Desperately willing to try anything, Steven meets with the Muse (Sharon Stone) and acquiesces to her every demand in hopes that she'll inspire him to write a great script.

The first problem with The Muse is that its plot set-up feels just as labored as the preceding paragraph; nearly every long conversation between Steven and Jack about the Muse is near-humorless exposition, with Bridges' character acting as more of a plot device than an actual person. Similarly, all the Hollywood cretins Brooks pokes fun at are such familiar targets—the heartless studio exec, the heartless agent, etc.—that you almost wonder why he bothered. With The Muse's insert-tab-A-into-slot-B construction, you may also start to suspect somebody forced Brooks to attend a screenwriting class. Where's his scathing commentary, his manic self-loathing? Why aren't things spinning out of control? It's all so predictable...

The other problem with The Muse is its Muse, Sharon Stone. While Brooks may have been playing it safe by banking on a "star," safety is the last thing this movie needed. While Stone is a creditable dramatic actress, and does her best here, she doesn't have that innate sense of timing and delivery that marks a great comedic talent. And that's what The Muse most desperately needs—someone who can embody a creature as ethereal and zany as a "Muse," and pull the movie out of its lethargy. Instead, the biggest impression Stone leaves with the viewer is, "Hey, it's Sharon Stone acting sort of funny."

Worse, Albert Brooks just feels off his game here. His greatest moments as a film comedian come with his masterful asides; as his down and out character faces certain humiliation, probably due to his own pigheaded behavior, he lashes back with a perfect muttered joke. The joke can be at his own expense, or perhaps directed at the fool he's putting up with; but behind the barb you can see his eyes sparkling with a sort of intellectual rage—at himself, at people, at the universe. And that's where the real laugh comes from: As he verbalizes the comeback you wish you could whip up, you realize that's just the way you've secretly felt, too. But in The Muse, those moments don't come very often; it's Albert Brooks lite.

Still, compared to the usual factory-approved comedies we get (in an era when Big Daddy is seen as a great artistic advancement for the genius Adam Sandler), The Muse offers enough quirks to make it worthwhile. Not unlike Brooks' Defending Your Life, it mixes the celestial questions of spirit (where does inspiration come from?) with the grimy, ego-driven world we live in. Thoughtful, though not necessarily clever, The Muse offers some appetizers for thought.

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