Albert Brooks’ THE MUSE (1999) – Comedy inspired by the gods

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I will admit my bias right up front: If I had to make a list of reasons I’m glad I’m alive, comedian-writer-director Albert Brooks would surely be in my top ten.

Sadly, after a long career of brilliant stand-up comedy and somewhat hit-and-miss (but mostly hit) movie comedies, Brooks is still considered a cult comedian whose humor often seems a little too inside. But if you’re burned out by in-your-face comedies, I strongly encourage you to see Brooks’ The Muse. It’s gratifyingly intelligent and superbly hilarious to boot.

Brooks plays Steven Phillips, a Hollywood screenwriter who, as the movie opens, is being presented with a humanitarian award. (When one of his daughters asks what a humanitarian is, he replies, “It’s a man who never won an Oscar.”) The award is the last good thing to happen to Steven for a while.

Trying to peddle his latest script, he is told by many disparate parties that he has “lost his edge.” The movie’s first half-hour milks huge laughs from Steven’s desperate attempts at script-hustling, as he moves further and further down the Hollywood food chain.

Then Steven happens upon Jack Warrick (Jeff Bridges), an old Hollywood friend whose career is on a dramatic upswing. Jack reluctantly shares his secret with Steven. He has a muse — not an imagined source of inspiration, but a real live goddess who gives him the help he needs. Jack arranges a meeting between Sarah the muse (played to the hilt by Sharon Stone) and Steven.

The Muse, like the best modern-day comedies, is almost anti-high concept. Trying to explain its appeal usually bungles it for anyone who isn’t in on the laugh. Brooks is simply one of the great comedians–for my money, right up there with Chaplin and all the other comedy icons you just have to trust will give you a good time. He’s also a subtle, underrated director who gets huge laughs from the simplest camera set-ups. (Witness Steven’s trek through a movie lot as he attempts to meet Steven Spielberg.)

Brooks must have had his own muse to get such an inspired performance from Sharon Stone, whose appeal has been lost on me until now. She usually comes off as self-obsessed. But here, that can only be an advantage. Stone’s best moments are Sarah’s slack-jawed reactions to Steven’s cost-cutting attempts to get her services for less. What’s money to a muse like her, anyway?

Even the ending, which is usually the weakest part of Brooks’s movies, manages to wrap things up beautifully here. It’s tempting to think that Brooks had a muse of his own working with him on this one. (Maybe it was his long-time writing partner, the late Monica Johnson.) Whatever inspired Albert Brooks in this instance, The Muse will make you feel like you’re in the middle of a very inside but very funny Hollywood joke.

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