Monday, December 8, 2014

The Muse - 1999

"The Muse" - 1999
Dir. by Albert Brooks - 1 hr. 37 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

It feels like the only qualification for a movie getting thrown on Showtime's "Women" channel is that it passes that stupid Bechdel Test.  I don't know why "The Muse" gets thrown on that channel otherwise; it's just a movie.  And really, "The Muse" is a movie about movies (sort of), one of those dreaded "insider" films.  And even worse, it's a pretty good film.  It's not exactly one of those "tortured writer" movies, it's written with a light touch, and ends up raising more questions than it answers.  Mainly, I'm just irritated that I have to watch a movie that I like with that stupid women's logo in the corner, mocking me for watching a chick flick.  It's not a chick flick!

Steven Phillips (Albert Brooks) is a screenwriter of some success, as we're introduced to him receiving a humanitarian award for his career, which included a film that was nominated for an Oscar.  The next day, he's informed that his newest script is evidence of him having lost his edge (whatever that means, but it's a refrain), and that not only is that script rejected, he's been dropped from his development deal at Universal. too.  At his wife's (Andie MacDowell) request, Steven turns to his friend, Jack (Jeff Bridges) for some advice.  Jack is persuaded to introduce Steven to Sarah (Sharon Stone), who purports to be an honest-to-goodness muse.  Jack swears she's the secret to his (and many others') success, so Steven goes along with it.  And, as one might imagine, an honest-to-goodness muse is both capricious AND has expensive tastes.

There are a couple of things you're going to have to accept in order to enjoy "The Muse."  First, you're going to have to like Albert Brooks.  I don't have a problem with that, but his is a pretty well-defined persona, and you're going to have to sympathize with his character.  No ifs, ands, or buts!  Secondly, you're going to need to accept Sharon Stone (yes, that Sharon Stone) as a proto-Manic Pixie Dream Girl.  Granted, her character is both more well-rounded than that trope usually can brag about, and lays claim to mythological reasons for her being that way.  And Sharon Stone wouldn't have been my first choice for this kind of role, even in 1999.  But she pulls it off, I think.  Mileage might vary from viewer to viewer, but she's got just enough of an edge to her to give weight to the concern that pissing off a Goddess (the muses are literally the children of Zeus and Mnemosyne) might have unpleasant consequences.

Once you're past those concerns, this is a pretty sharply-written film.  Albert Brooks isn't the sort of writer to wallow in grandiose demonstrations of torment; you will not have drunken benders, violence, or gratuitous nudity and sex scenes.  This film is not "In a Lonely Place," Steven isn't Humphrey Bogart's self-destructive character.  Brooks' character's concerns are definitely not life-or-death; his inability to write something of sufficient quality is an upper-middle class concern (and Steven's house is testament to a much higher level of success than that), and the stakes are more about continued financial success than anything else.  The universal response to his work is a statement on familiarity as much as it is about struggling professionally.

But the questions that this film raise are interesting ones.  First off, is a muse (or inspiration, to generalize) necessary to create an interesting piece of creative work, or is it just a placebo effect that boosts one's confidence enough to dare to be successful?  Also, the points of friction between Steven and his wife, Laura, are not flattering to Steven's character, but they're also pretty common ones.  There's also the issue of wanting to be successful out of jealousy, and honestly, whether or not the work is worth pursuing at all, beyond financial recompense.  The muse herself is a constant source of irritation and minor inconvenience that Steven puts up with because of the promise of what lies at the end of the process.  One of the unanswered questions of the film is why Steven does what he does.  There are certainly easier ways to earn a buck than by writing screenplays.

On the whole, I really like "The Muse."  I suspect one of the reasons that writers like to write stories about writers is that you can always justify whatever you've written by having the result be a creative masterpiece.  If a muse ran into someone who ran a muffler shop, the result of the interaction wouldn't be very impactful.  Sure, a few people would have brilliantly installed mufflers, but the room for error in the world of mufflers doesn't really require brilliance for the mufflers to work as intended.  But in terms of writing (and creative work in general), even perfect circumstances don't guarantee anything.  But beyond the notion of a real muse wandering around in modern times, you have a basic comedic premise that works.  Two of them, actually.  You've got the cheapskate trying to accommodate a woman with expensive tastes, and you've also got a man juggling the demands of two women, even if the demands are largely not of a sexual nature (I'm not sure I can even remember Steven kissing his wife at any point in the film).  The result is a clever, light, funny film with a bunch of cameos, an absence of Hollywood smugness that frequently sinks insider films (the industry stuff comes off in a surreal manner instead of being self-satisfied), and a couple of nice twists along the way.

But it's not a goddamned chick flick, I swear.

3.5 / 5 - TV (HD)

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