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At the Movies: ‘The Muse’

August 23, 1999 GMT

Like men who get drunk on grape juice thinking it’s wine, filmmakers in Albert Brooks’ ``The Muse″ are inspired by a diva who they believe is truly one of the Greek gods of creativity.

Thanks to this ``Muse,″ played by Sharon Stone and conducting business like the most pampered of starlets, we have James Cameron’s ``Titanic,″ Rob Reiner’s ``The American President″ and any number of Martin Scorsese movies. The Muse’s worshippers arrive bearing trinkets from Tiffany and come away with advice they treasure like oracles. ``Stay away from the water,″ she urges Cameron, desperate for a followup to his blockbuster movie.


That Cameron, Reiner and Scorsese all make cameos in ``The Muse″ is a sign of how Hollywood adores Brooks, the poet of yuppie neurosis, and how it adores making fun of it itself. Brooks is clearly happy to reciprocate.

He stars as Steven Phillips, a middle-aged screenwriter once nominated for an Academy Award. The film begins with Steven receiving a ``humanitarian″ prize. Asked later by his daughter just why he was so honored, his response is realistic: Because he never won the Oscar.

In his acceptance speech, Steven likens the screenwriter’s status in Hollywood to a eunuch at an orgy. The next day, he will be banished from the palace altogether. His boss tells him he’s ``losing his edge″ and fires him (Brian De Palma needs his office). When he arrives on the lot of a rival studio, where he thinks he has a meeting with Steven Spielberg, he is told he has no ``drive on″ privileges and must walk to Spielberg’s office instead. The walk is nine miles.

With a wife (Andie MacDowell) and two kids to support, Steven begs for help from a more successful screenwriter (Jeff Bridges), who lets him in on the dirty secret: He owes it all to a ``Muse,″ named Sarah. Steven, too, can drink from the magic fountain, but the price is high: Sarah demands a fancy hotel suite, food, clothes, car service and Steven’s constant availability, which includes a late-night delivery of Waldorf salad. Getting help from her proves no easier than arranging a meeting with Spielberg.

An ingenious (yes, inspired) story on paper, ``The Muse″ feels like one of those films that was more fun to make than it is to watch. The actors, especially Stone, get a kick from sending up their peers (and themselves), but what they give us is an orgy of inside Hollywood jokes. The biggest laughs come early. After that, outsiders can only look on like so many eunuchs.


Brooks sends up Hollywood superstition and, perhaps, his own reputation. The self-destructive whiners he played in ``Modern Romance″ and ``Lost in America″ are slightly better adjusted, and slightly less edgy, in ``Defending Your Life″ and ``Mother.″ The old Albert Brooks dreamed big and ended up where he started. The new Albert Brooks gets wise and moves on.

Some of that ``edge″ is back in ``The Muse,″ but the movie is still pretty soft compared to Brooks’ earlier work and to such Hollywood satires as ``The Player″ and Steve Martin’s ``Bowfinger.″

``The Muse″ is an intelligent, undemanding comedy. Maybe this was the message all along: In Hollywood, even the gods are just too laid-back.

An October Films release, ``The Muse″ was directed by Brooks and co-written by Brooks and Monica Johnson. Herb Nanas was the producer. The film runs 97 minutes and is rated PG-13, with adult situations and the briefest of nude scenes, featuring the famously R-rated Ms. Stone.


Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G _ General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG _ Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 _ Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R _ Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. NC-17 _ No one under 17 admitted.