We gave it a C-
What, exactly, has happened to Albert Brooks? In movies like Modern Romance (1981) and the great Lost in America (1985), he was a comic surgeon of middle-class desperation, making prickly, sardonic incisions into our collective anxieties about romance, status, money, work. He was often described as a Left Coast Woody Allen, and that wasn’t just because of his babbling, therapeutic-spritzer delivery but because of how fearlessly he took laughs at his own expense. Brooks the hyper-verbal noodge, locked in a perpetual argument with his own defense mechanisms, was a priceless figure of egomaniacal self-mockery. The more overwrought he became, the more he willed himself to be ”mellow.” In 1991, though, he made Defending Your Life, a comedy about heaven, and thus commenced the New Age of Albert Brooks. Suddenly, he seemed to be playing guru to his own previously hilarious antic pain. His mellowness was no longer simply a gag. It took over like a virus, and Brooks, who once cut so close to the bone, now placed an invisible buffer between his comedy and the real world.
The Muse, Brooks’ latest, starts off as a trenchant burlesque of the everyday sickness of Hollywood and ends up as an embarrassment — a fairy-tale showbiz satire that seems to defang itself, scene by scene. Brooks seems to think that he’s walking the high wire of self-scrutiny by playing Steven Phillips, a veteran screenwriter who is told, out of the blue, that he has lost his ”edge.” The early minutes show delicious promise, especially when Steven has lunch with a young Paramount executive, who, as played (expertly) by Mark Feuerstein, is a study in bankrupt microduplicity. On the spot, he terminates Steven’s three-picture deal, and the more Steven tries to recover from this fall, the more he learns that everyone in the business thinks he’s washed-up. There’s only one thing that can save him. A secret weapon — the best-kept one in Hollywood. A muse!
Not just any muse either, but the one and only Sarah (Sharon Stone), an itinerant, platinum-haired princess who hires herself out to creatively blocked individuals. As legend has it, she’s the daughter of Zeus himself, and the demand for her services is great indeed. Even more intense are the demands she makes on her clients, who include James Cameron, Rob Reiner, and Martin Scorsese (in cutesy cameos). Everyone who enlists Sarah’s services is required to shower her with trinkets from Tiffany, and Steven also learns that he’s got to rent her a $1,700-a-day suite at the Four Seasons, provide round-the-clock car and room service, and generally act as her manservant.
How, exactly, is this supposed to help him? From what we can see, the servitude is the inspiration. Sarah, who appears to be either a man-eater or a crackpot (or both), is the muse as Zen high-maintenance hooker/shrink; she’s like a dominatrix who gets hired by slaves for the privilege of cleaning her apartment. Stone plays this earthly deity with maximum cold-fish practicality. Her every hip swagger says, ”You’re nothing to me!” If this sounds like a bizarre form of creative therapy, it does have a precedent (remember the abuse chic of est?), and Steven, under Sarah’s tutelage, begins to bloom.
The script he coughs up is a summer comedy about a guy who inherits a malfunctioning aquarium (are you laughing yet?). More than that, its entire concept hinges on the hope that Jim Carrey may sign on. If anything, this sounds like an even worse idea for a movie than Chubby Rain in Bowfinger. Yet watching The Muse, it remains utterly foggy what Brooks’ satirical slant is toward Steven, his muse therapy, or his script. Is our hero meant to be a failed hack or a failed artist? And if the screenplay he writes is this dumb, what does it mean for Steven to get his mojo back in the first place? Brooks, as always, skewers fantasies of success, but here he does it so completely on Hollywood’s corrupt terms that he all but deep-sixes his central gag.
Sarah turns out to be an all-purpose capitalist goddess. She even encourages Steven’s wife, Laura (Andie MacDowell), to live out her dream by launching a homemade-cookie business. There’s more triumph in Laura’s chocolate-chip-oatmeal confections than there is in Steven’s reconfigured talent. That, however, is an irony the movie remains blind to. Brooks, it seems, just wants to celebrate the wacky poetic justice of a crass gold digger inspiring men and women to make more gold. I’d say that he’d lost his edge, if I were even sure he still had his center.