The Muse

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson


USA Entertainment, widescreen 1.85:1/16x9, standard 1.33:1, languages: English DD 5.0 [CC] & Dolby Surround, subtitles: Spanish, French, double side-single layer, 25 chapters, featurette, theatrical & teaser trailers, cast & crew biographies, rated PG-13, 97 min., $24.95, street date 2/15/2000.

Studio Line

Directed by Albert Brooks. Starring Albert Brooks, Sharon Stone, Jeff Bridges, Andie MacDowell, Mark Feuerstein, Steven Wright.

In true Hollywood fashion, successful screenwriter Steven Phillips (Albert Brooks) learns his career is ending over lunch. Trying anything to get it back, he meets with an enviously successful friend (Jeff Bridges) who advises the services of an absolute goddess named Sarah Little (Sharon Stone). Sarah's a real-life Muse, one of the nine daughter's of the Greek god Zeus, whose earthly task it is to inspire creativity. Divine services do not come cheap, however, and Sarah details her extravagant and eccentric needs to Steven as terms for taking him as a client. Despite his wife Laura's (Andie MacDowell) misgivings, Steven accepts the terms. As a result, Sarah charms her way deeper into their personal lives and her quirky and amusing behavior changes Steven and Laura forever.

Boasting a host of Hollywood luminaries in lighthearted cameos, this wry comedy pokes hilarious fun at Tinseltown itself.

Picture/Sound/Extras (B+/B/D+)

Among those people officially In The Know, Albert Brooks has long been regarded as one of the funniest people alive, if not the funniest. To me, I never understood this. I'd seen a lot of the guy's work over the years - back to his short films on Saturday Night Live in the Seventies - and while I found him amusing, I never could understand why his humor inspired such reverence.

I guess a lot of people agree with me, since Brooks has never been a popular success. Not that that means much of anything - popular taste and quality aren't always (or even often) walking hand in hand - but perversely, his lack of box office bucks seems to have made his every project that much more highly anticipated; his fans think that this new movie will be the one that finally breaks him to a widespread audience.

The Muse seemed to be a good film on which they could pin their hopes. After all, Brooks costars with some decently big names like Sharon Stone, Jeff Bridges and Andie MacDowell, and the movie's concept appeared promising. The premise that a slumping Hollywood screenwriter can get back in the saddle through the help of an honest to Zeus muse sounds ripe for hilarity.

Well, it may sound that way, but the end result is fairly terrible. I don't know if I'd go so far to call this an actual "train wreck of a movie" but it's awfully close - The Muse has to represent the nadir of Brooks' career. While I'm no big fan of his, I've always liked him enough to never believe he could produce something this unfunny and painful to watch.

Irony or ironies, apparently it's Brooks who needs a muse, because this film is tired and witless. Oh, it's not completely without laughs; I think I snorted two or three times. But that's a pretty low laugh ratio, and many more moments actually made me cringe.

Brooks works in the Woody Allen school whereby he always essentially plays himself in his movies. Come to think of it, The Muse resembles a kind of idea Allen might have used, something akin to Purple Rose of Cairo. Anyway, his role as Steven Phillips seems to strike home even more than usual, since he's a writer who lacks "edge," as we hear so many times. (It's supposed to be funny - it's not.) Whatever "edge" Brooks once had is not evident here; about the wittiest thing he does is a (purposefully) lame and unsuccessful James Cameron parody when he wins an award. That happens about three minutes into the film, and it's all downhill from there.

Instead of humor, Brooks seems to believe that the inclusion of famous people playing themselves will entertain us. In case you decide to watch this movie yourself, I won't spoil the "fun," except to note that most of these cameos are tremendously grating and silly. Okay, I have to mention one, if just because it's perhaps the lamest gag Brooks ever created: while at lunch with a studio bigwig who's essentially canning Phillips, Jennifer Tilly comes up to their table. As she's leaving, she notes that the exec is a "real doll." Phillips/Brooks mutters, "Yeah, like Chucky." That's a terrible joke in any circumstance, but it's made more pathetic by the "cleverness" of the tie-in to Tilly, who starred in "Bride of Chucky".

That happened early enough in the movie that I could have bailed at that point, but for some unknown reason I stuck it out and waited for that legendary Brooks magic, wittiness that never came. When his muse helps him find his talent again, we're supposed to believe that his big comeback project is a comedy that stars Jim Carrey as the owner of an aquarium. Oh, what hijinks will follow! As described, the film sounds like something that Adam Sandler would turn down before breakfast. I kept wondering if the inanity of this pitched project was purposeful, a way to mock the stupidity of Hollywood; alas, I actually think we're supposed to believe this is a film with "hit" written all over it, for no sense of irony or mockery ever appears. Well, I guess it makes sense that Brooks can't conjure a good phony project, since his real one bites.

Another example of the thinness of the comedy: one rather extended scene shows Brooks chatting uncomfortably with a cocktail party guest who speaks poor English. Wow! That's an original concept! Didn't that kind of humor get old with Norm Crosby? (Oh, and to make sure it's not politically incorrect, we're told the guy grew up in America. That doesn't explain his accent, of course, but it makes sure we can't think Brooks made fun of furriners, and it also adds that wacky twist! Yuck...)

Granted, this mess isn't all Brooks' fault. He's not served well by his actors. Bridges manages to acquit himself acceptably, although he always looks vaguely sad, as though he knows what a disaster this film will be but he's doing it as a favor. More actively unpleasant are McDowell and Stone. McDowell plays her part as Steven's wife as some sort of wooden post, though she manages to seem vaguely irritated at times (for no apparent reason, usually); other than that, she displays little emotion or... or much of anything - it's a dead performance.

Stone, on the other hand, seems to believe she's the new Lucy as she mugs her way across the screen. I guess one of the funny parts of the film was supposed to be how wacky and neurotic Sarah - "the muse" - is, what with her silly hairstyles and her capricious late night requests. This is supposed to be one of those roles where we see the character as unconventional but ultimately charming and irresistible; everyone who meets her - except, as always, the protagonist, who becomes jealous of her - quickly falls under her spell. Unfortunately, there's no magic or allure to Stone's performance; she gets obnoxious right but lacks the rest of the part.

Although I've never been much of a Brooks fan, I still chalk up The Muse as a massive disappointment. I'm not going to say that his talent has completely vanished, but if it's still around, it'll take a long distance call to reach it.

At least the DVD's not bad! The Muse appears in both its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and in a fullscreen version on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; at the start, you choose which one you want from a menu, so theoretically you could switch back and forth between them without having to leave your seat. The letterboxed edition has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions.

The Muse presents a perfectly competent picture for a recent film. Sharpness seems quite good, with the only signs of softness appearing during some more distant shots; the vast majority of the movie looks quite crisp. Unfortunately, some moiré effects appear. For some reason, this film seems to include more characters wearing shirts with horizontal stripes than we normally see, and these tend to strobe pretty badly. Other objects show that effect as well, but those shirts really stuck out in my mind!

The print used for the transfer looks terrific, as we'd expect; I think I saw a speckle or two but that was it. Colors appeared a bit subdued but largely true and accurate, with no signs of bleeding or smearing. Black levels seemed deep and rich, and though shadow detail could look a tiny bit heavy at times, it generally appeared good. The Muse really does look quite good and came very close to earning an "A-"; only those damned striped shirts knocked it down to a "B+".

As is typical with low-key comedies, the Dolby Digital 5.0 mix of The Muse seems quite restrained, but that's fine. The soundstage appears firmly rooted to the front channels, with very little activity from the rear. Some music and light ambience came from the surrounds, but that was about it; this was one of those movies during which I occasionally felt compelled to stick my head next to the rear speakers to tell if any sound came from them at all. The audio seems pretty nicely distributed across the front channels, though. Dialogue sticks to the center for the most part, but the score and a variety of effects appear from the sides. It's very modest but it works.

Quality of audio seems consistently strong. Dialogue sounded clear and concise, with a nice natural tone and no intelligibility issues. The music appeared rich and full, and effects were appropriately clean and realistic. I noted absolutely no signs of any sort of distortion during the film. Due to its modest scope, I didn't feel I could give the soundtrack of The Muse a rating higher than a "B", but it really is a perfectly fine mix for this movie.

Finally, a few supplements appear on The Muse, but not much. We get a six minute featurette that's one of the traditional studio puff pieces. It's irritating just because I so disliked the film; I didn't need to watch Brooks and the cast go on about how funny it'll be when I know it's a piece of crap. Actually, the funniest thing here is the movie's teaser trailer, which shows Brooks as he shows "the entire movie" in 15 seconds. All in all, this piece isn't terribly funny, and it seems to rip off the trailers for This Is Spinal Tap to a degree, but Brooks gets it some clever lines, and it certainly beats the movie itself.

The DVD also features the film's more traditional - and much less interesting - theatrical trailer as well as biographies for Brooks, MacDowell, Stone and Bridges. These are quite good and are some of the best bios I've seen in a while; they provide decent historical notes about each of the participants and give fairly complete filmographies. I found them to be enjoyable and informative.

But it's a sad state of affairs when the best parts of a DVD are a teaser and some biographies. Don't blame the studio; the picture and sound are quite good as well. Unfortunately, The Muse absolutely stinks. Don't believe the hype; whatever comedic good will Albert Brooks has earned over the years absolutely disappears with this stinker.

Related Sites

Current as of 2/22/2000

Official Site--There are some sprinkles of the muse's inspiration as the details from the movie, cast and filmmakers are particularly in-depth, with generous amount of stills and trailers.
James Berardinelli's ReelViews--"Ironically, The Muse is missing the key ingredient of inspiration, and it's exactly that quality that the mythological Muses were supposed to impart."
Roger Ebert--"The movie is good but not great Brooks."
The Albert Brooks Website--A very nice site that includes biography, reviews, pictures, sounds, career, quotes, and more.
Sharon STONE Homepage--Includes briography and filmography with lots of pictures and goodies.
The Andie MacDowell Page--Beautifully designed with all the essential information and much more. to purchase are the DVD at special discount and the original score soundtrack composed by Elton John. the DVD at special discount.
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