Forget "Blair Witch" - Albert Brooks has come up with the summer's real horror.
By Hadley Hury
SEPTEMBER 7, 1999: As my wife and I left a Friday afternoon screening of Albert Brooks' new film The Muse, a man hailed us politely from across the parking lot. He was standing beside the open driver's door of his Cherokee, one hand on the door handle; a woman remained in the front passenger seat, turned toward him in mid-conversation.
They were apparently among that vanishing breed of moviegoers who still just "go to the movies" as a sort of blithe, non-specific outing, not unlike taking an aimless walk. It was early Friday evening, this couple had probably just come from work, they'd noticed a couple of the new films in the morning paper, and had decided, possibly on the spur of the moment, to give one of them a shot before going on to dinner. They seemed to have missed the start time for one of the other opening films and now hesitated over another option.
"Yes," I said, we had, indeed, just seen The Muse thing.
"Was it any good?"
Not "Well, my wife liked it, but ." or "Well, pretty good. " or shrugged, accommodating shoulders accompanying an "Okay."
If he was a bit disappointed, I sensed nevertheless that he appreciated the uncluttered candor. He even winked before turning back to talk to his companion, as if to acknowledge the swift decisiveness of someone trying to spare them needless grief. He had seen my wife nodding her head vigorously and rolling her eyes, and had heard the implicit "Flee!" in my monosyllabic reply, the cautionary urgency in its tone, a cryptic but unmistakable warning from those who had been there and lived to tell the tale.
The briefest review I have ever given in a 10-year career of writing about film -- and, contrary to what some people may think, a very rare response. Few films are perfect but equally few are totally devoid of some saving grace. Anyone who is passionate about film and about writing about film knows that the joy of film criticism comes in the opportunity to discover, examine, and extol virtues of the art, not in having first to sit through and then to spend time and critical capacity in the excoriation of trash.
But film reviewing is also a job, and I am obliged to back up that clearly reasoned, unpresumptious, heartfelt, and spontaneously articulate "No!" with a few hundred other words. (And should the man in the parking lot read this column, he will know that the brevity of the spontaneous review he solicited was not merely curt but perhaps, indeed, the very soul of wit .)
What makes The Muse the most punishingly unfunny major-release comedy of this or any recent year is also its cruelest, most all-encompassing, irony: It is a story about a Hollywood screenwriter, Steven Phillips (Brooks), losing his edge. He is told by everyone -- from smarmy young studio executives to his own agent -- that the script he is currently shopping, like his last few marginally commercial efforts, are derivative, lackluster, uninspired.
Brooks is a Hollywood screenwriter and director, and in The Muse there is nothing even arguable about his losing his edge. There is not only no edge whatever to be discerned, but the film is also maddeningly awful, a truly unmitigated (with the exception of fewer than a handful of scenes) disaster by any standard and on every level. Sitting through this film makes it difficult to remember whatever "edge" enlivened his early satires such as Lost in America and at least some passages of the more recent Defending Your Life and Mother.
There is an absolutely fatal Emperor's New Clothes aspect to Brooks' purportedly "insider's" satirical view of Hollywood here; that he cannot see that this project is hopelessly uninspired, even dispiriting, is both alarming and rather pathetic. Brooks is not only not an outsider, but he's also quite evidently so inside that he has come to believe his own press -- that he is a sort of Jeremiah crying in the wilderness of Hollywood's amorality and misbegotten, dazzlingly misplaced, values. He attempts some satirical jabs here at the formulaic, anti-art, superficiality of the industry, but he can come nowhere close to the target since the film before us is an egregious example of the intended target: The Muse may have sounded like a good "concept" when Brooks pitched it to execs by the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel, but it is nothing more than an unrealized sketch. It lacks not only satirical wit, but any wit at all; there is no interesting development of its central idea -- that the writer turns to a muse-for-hire -- no comedic inner-logic, no coherency, no pace or momentum, and precious few laughs. If no one in Hollywood will tell Brooks the truth -- à la his Phillips character -- the box office inexorably will. (In the screening I attended, the esprit de corps of a willing-to-be-pleased weekend audience quickly dissipated and the last two-thirds of the film was met with palpably unamused silence.)
Brooks' feeble script and his stultifying direction are exacerbated by his howlingly infelicitous cast. Poor Andie McDowell (of justifiable L'Oreal ads fame -- she is a pretty face) proves yet again that she is one of the most unlikely and unaccomplished personalities on-screen today. As Phillips' disconcerted but patient wife, her voice (an unconfidently half-leached North Carolina whine) is as distracting as ever, and her "acting" range falls within her usual parameters -- stiffly raised hands for earnestness, creased brow and downturned mouth for chagrin, wonder, anger, and all other situations from existential despair to tasting cookie dough. (One always feels in watching her discomforting performances that Andie is probably a nice person and would be fun to have over for dinner, but surely that ranch in Idaho is paid for by now and she can disabuse herself of this notion that she's an actor.)
Far, far, worse is Sharon Stone's muse. Granted, she is given next to nothing to play; the script is one tediously long, airless and unenergetic, missed opportunity of both situation and dialogue. But Stone has no resources with which even to try to fill the gaps, and her screen persona is diametrically opposed to anyone's notion of "a daughter of Zeus whose role through the centuries has been to aid in the creation of literature, music, and art." (To recommend a good nail salon or personal trainer, or haggle a good contract, sure, but "to inspire great art."? One doesn't think so.)
Her idea of comic timing is a rapid-fire delivery devoid of coloration, and to indicate her timelessly spritely spirituality she doesn't sit in one place long, twists her hair, and strides around flapping a small fan. Indeed, watching the shrewdly self-aware instincts and iron-willed temperament and comportment of Sharon Stone harnessed to the characterization of a wistful muse in "an antic mood" is altogether a disturbingly oxymoronic experience in every sense -- visually, vocally, soulfully. The performance calls to mind the worst of Joan Crawford's roles -- like Susan and God or When Ladies Meet -- in which the effort to ameliorate the star's fierce persona and to extend her marketable range into comedy produced performances of harrowingly brittle tone and a comic milieu so forced and disingenuous as to be grotesque.
That's what The Muse is, on all counts. It's unfunny, dispiriting, grotesque -- one of the most self-immolating examples of irony in film history: a movie about a Hollywood writer losing his edge written by a Hollywood writer who is losing his edge. Brooks' career has always suffered (whether fairly or not) in comparison with Woody Allen's, whose idiom and tone his films somewhat approximate. This time out, however, Brooks is not only not Woody Allen, but he's also not even Albert Brooks. One can only hope that he may find his own muse -- and that it won't be Sharon Stone.
By all means, see The Muse if you are interested in a near-textbook illustration of a multifaceted disaster of filmmaking.
Or, just take my word for it
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