Published August 1, 1999
Albert Brooks, more than any other Hollywood writer/director, is able to write satirically about Hollywood without at the same time succumbing to the charm of its own outrageousness. In The Muse he has had the particularly clever idea of casting Sharon Stone, Hollywood’s premiere sex symbol of the moment, as a sexless “Muse” (“All the women in my family are muses,” she says)—which is to say what Hollywood men really lust after, sacrifice for (“think of it as an investment”) and pursue at all costs, namely success.
The film begins with Brooks, as the screenwriter Stephen Phillips, getting a humanitarian award. When his daughter asks him what a humanitarian is, he replies: “Someone who’s never won the Oscar”—though he has, he reminds everyone, been nominated. But from being someone who just has failed of the heights, he becomes one cast down into the depths when his much younger and snotty boss at Paramount, Josh (Mark Feuerstein), tells him that he is “losing his edge” as a writer and, with insufferable condescension, sacks him.
There follows a funny scene in which the suddenly unemployed writer thinks he is meeting with Steven Spielberg and is instead shunted off to a cubicle manned by “Stan Spielberg” (Steven Wright), alleged to be Steven’s brother, in a giant office building presumably full of faux Spielbergs. Stan doesn’t like Phillips’s work very much. Then he learns from his successful friend, Jack (Jeff Bridges)—who has won the Oscar—of the alleged muse, called Sarah Little, who might, if he brings her gifts and pampers her, consent to be his muse. Brooks is hilarious in the role of the little man, out of work and desperate, who has to judge how much to spend on a gift, how much to agree to in pampering her, while at the same time furiously calculating what he might stand to gain in return.
“So it’s not like Rumplestiltskin?” he says to her. “I don’t wake up with a script?”
Somewhat surprisingly, Miss Stone is just as good as the Muse, who is totally seductive of Phillips’s credulity without at all tempting his libido. “I have to be careful,” she tells him conspiratorially. I could anger the gods. . .You don’t know what wrath is till you’ve seen Zeus get pissed.” Zeus, of course, is her father.
“The one with the drinking problem?” asks Phillips.
“All the gods drink,” she says.
Also very funny is Phillips’s jealousy of his wife, Laura (Andie MacDowell), when she strikes up a friendship with the Muse. The latter, without any bribing proceeds to inspire her to become a cookie tycoon like Mrs Fields (“Isn’t she divorced?” asks her husband). In fact, in this movie even those tired old staples of the Hollywood satire, the star cameos, are funny. James Cameron, the director of Titanic, muses over the Muse’s advice to “stay out of the water” while Martin Scorsese wants to run past her his idea for remaking Raging Bull with a “really thin” actor.
Funniest of all, however, is the cheesiness of the idea that our hero attributes to the Muse’s inspiration and that he (and everybody else) thinks is so great: Jim Carey (who does not appear) inherits an aquarium in which everything is falling apart and the fish are dying. His misadventures in attempting to open the place to the public are finally resolved when the place turns out to be built on an oil deposit and Carey and his family turn into the Beverly Hillbillies. The extent to which everyone is prepared to believe in this lame comic conceit is cleverly shown to be analogous to the way in which everyone is prepared to believe in the Muse—who turns out to be an escaped mental patient from Cincinnati.
“But the muse part is correct, right?” says the desperate hero to the nurse and doctor who have come to take her away. “Should I take your laughter as a no?”
The nurse says: “Mr Phillips, this is Hollywood. I wouldn’t beat yourself up for believing her. People here believe anything. . .”
“But she fits the Muse profile perfectly,” he says, shaking his head. Yes, he knows that people here believe anything, but that doesn’t stop him from believing anything too. It is the true spirit of Hollywood satire, which invariably fails in the end because it is unable to put any real distance between itself and Hollywood. But Albert Brooks comes as close to bringing it off as anyone ever has.