Albert Brooks enjoyed the considerable, if not quite undivided, attention of his own muse on “The Muse,” a beguiling but erratic rumination on the creative process, Hollywood style. Typically fresh and idiosyncratic in the writing but often flat directorially, the comic auteur’s sixth feature has plenty to offer his usual fan base, but its constipated hero, relatively cerebral concerns and sedate style will restrict its commercial potential to sophisticated upscale audiences.
Brooks confronts that perennial hobgoblin, writer’s block, and wittily connects it not only to worries associated with the film industry (the fears of being uncommercial, out of the loop, old hat or just plain old), but also to the ancient Greek source of inspiration, who can prove whimsical as to when, and to whom, she bestows her favors. And it’s entirely fitting that the muse that appears to inspire half the town’s most successful artists is beautiful, charming, petty, capricious, demanding, inscrutable, unpredictable, exciting and quite possibly crazy.
Brooks’ fictional alter ego, mainstream screenwriter Steven Phillips, finds he’s in desperate need of an artistic boost upon being told by a brazen young Paramount executive (a superbly weaselly Mark Feuerstein) that he’s lost his “edge” and, oh, by the way, please be off the lot by 5 p.m. Suddenly unemployable, Steven shortly spots his close friend, the hugely successful writer Jack Warrick (Jeff Bridges), consorting with a beautiful blonde and learns that this woman, Sarah (Sharon Stone), is one of the nine daughters of Zeus and is in cahoots with many of the top names in showbiz.
Setup scenes possess a deliciously knowing air, as they indelibly nail the many varieties of insults and ego blows at which Hollywood excels — the brush-offs from studio-gate guards and power players (Steven’s trip to Universal for an anticipated meeting with Steven Spielberg is mini-classic), empty advice from agents, the feeling that everyone else is privy to a secret that, for some reason, they don’t want you to know.
Steven’s sense of despair and paranoia is naturally increased by the discovery that there is a discreet society of filmmakers who receive their inspiration from Sarah. Delighted to be accepted into the fold, he’s soon taken aback by Sarah’s requirements of expensive gifts, a $1,700-per-night suite at the Four Seasons and round-the-clock availability, as well as by the news that she doesn’t write, she only inspires.
Like a demanding kept woman, Sarah treats her new benefactor like an errand boy and threatens to break him financially, while also dispensing just enough creative tidbits to get Steven working on a new screenplay. Steven’s well-groomed wife, Laura (Andie MacDowell), is naturally suspicious of the latenight phone calls and visits, until Sarah takes Laura under her wing and, with the crucial intervention of Wolfgang Puck, helps launch her on an enormously successful career making gourmet cookies.
Although the story achieves a momentum of its own once these dynamics are put in gear, Steven’s moping and constant complaining eventually become a drag, especially when he continues to pooh-pooh his wife’s aspirations. By the time Sarah achieves so much sway over Laura that she’s moved into the house and has dislodged Steven from his marital bed, the man’s become a stifled, spineless pushover, albeit one with a script in need only of a third act. As Steven forlornly observes, “This is like ‘The Muse Who Came to Dinner.’ ”
Of course, the spotlight must eventually fall upon Sarah herself. Who is this woman who receives urgent visits from (in amusing cameos) James Cameron and Martin Scorsese? Where does she come from? Could she actually be a real muse, Greek or otherwise? Brooks supplies some passable answers, but the comic invention flags a bit in the final reel or so prior to a slapdash wrap-up.
Throughout, Brooks and Monica Johnson’s script and dialogue are dead-on re Hollywood talk and attitudes; a scene at a Spago party at which an exasperated Steven is trapped talking to a Euro who barely understands a word he’s saying will ring true to anyone who’s spent any time in town. The almost whimsical arbitrariness of success and failure is always implicit, and even the over-sophisticated kids the community breeds are deftly captured.
But pic is slack stylistically. Playing a sad-sack character, Brooks makes him seem weary and heavy on his feet, and as a director he would much rather have his actors sit down and gab than stand up and move. Nor is the lensing terribly flattering to the thesps.
All the same, the actors are clearly having fun. Brooks is more Woody Allenish grumpy than usual, but still has the lion’s share of good lines. Stone, playing a woman who could as easily be a pampered, self-centered movie star as a mythological creature, shows a long-concealed gift for well-timed comedy, although this muse seems to be having a perpetual bad hair day. MacDowell is OK as the longtime supportive wife who awakens to an unsuspected destiny, while Bridges’ highlight scene is a hilariously frustrating tennis match that gives new meaning to “net ball.” Bradley Whitford scores numerous comic points in his brief moments as Steven’s agent.