\Hollywood has always been one of Hollywood's favorite subjects. Every version of A Star Is Born, and recent black comedies such as Swimming with Sharks and Permanent Midnight, paint Tinseltown with a dark and savage palette. The Muse, however, has the cheer, although not the show tunes (regrettably or laudably, depending on one's taste), of Singin' in the Rain. Albert Brooks's latest answers the question of where do you get your ideas with what just might be magic. Like the recent modest films Shakes the Clown and Funny Bones, The Muse examines the creative process and uses slight exaggeration to ally creativity and the supernatural.
Every few years or so Brooks (usually with his writing partner, Monica Johnson) scripts a thoughtful, personable comedy, and once again the result has the charm and intelligence his fans know and love. Brooks, also directing and starring, brings us a once-successful screenwriter. Unlike Barton Fink, our boy is a contented family man. Like Fink, this Steven Phillips hits a bad patch, but then, miraculously, he gets a meeting with a Muse (Sharon Stone).
Oh yes, this Muse takes meetings. The setting is as up-to-date as the Los Angeles of Altman's The Player. If you have a good reference, you might get a meeting, a meeting during which she'll make a decision about working with you -- but failure to bring a Tiffany's gift is a sure way to sour the deal. Though Stone's Muse swishes around in swaths of feather-trimmed chiffon, her well-pedicured toes in chartreuse peau de soie Vera Wang mules, when this demigoddess explains her specific dietary needs, you get the idea she's not talking about jasmine nectar and early-morning dew. Waldorf salad from Spago is what she wants, and it would be best if she had a car (and driver) available to secure takeout when the craving hits.
Her high-maintenance demands pale beside the behavior of the truly horrible industry types parodied, the most odious of which is an oily young studio executive called Josh (Mark Feuerstein). Josh is impressed with himself beyond belief. His ego is far more monstrous than the aging Bette Davis's in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. Over lunch in the studio commissary, Josh finds what he calls a nice way to tell Phillips his contract won't be renewed: "Maybe writing is something you shouldn't be doing." Compared to swine of this ilk, Stone's daffy, demanding demigoddess does seem inspirational.
Her needs are earthy, her somewhat airy methods as dreamy as the gentle instruction of Cinema Paradiso. (Also, her appearance: Stone's lower-lid false eyelashes are a tad below the natural lash line for a slightly off-kilter gaze.) During their first session, she tells Phillips to visit the aquarium. Why? "I saw an ad and I had a dream." What should he do? "Just try to enjoy yourself," she advises. Amazingly, he does.
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Instead of an artist losing his gifts to the demands of an eccentric, larger-than-life diva, $egrave; la Sunset Blvd., we see an artist finding new inspiration with an eccentric, larger-than-life diva. And this is significant. Phillips isn't aiming for a timeless masterpiece. We are told, more than once, that his nominated film was something called McCormick Park and that he has always wanted to write one of those big summer comedies. Rob Reiner (project unknown), James Cameron (seeking Titanic 2 advice) and Martin Scorsese (working on a Raging Bull remake, with a thin guy) are also Muse clients.
Art, it seems, is more available than one might imagine. A little talent, a lot of inspiration and some help from you-know-who, and even housework is sublime. Phillips's lovely wife, Laura (Andie MacDowell), turns a knack for baking into a cottage industry, is feted by Wolfgang Puck (another Muse client) and -- sounding too much like Mrs. Norman Maine for his taste -- assures her husband that if his new project doesn't work out she can support them.
This suggestion does not go over well and sparks one of many well-crafted domestic scenes. The Muse may claim an Olympian home, and the Phillips household has a seemingly endless supply of coordinated linens for the master bedroom, so much of the action takes place in a highly functional household. Brooks shows a father who uses sarcasm to display affection for his daughters -- his girls get the jokes -- and MacDowell, who is not the best actress in the world, uses her on-screen honesty to display acceptance rivaling that of Mrs. Ed Wood. When her husband first brings the Muse and attendant weirdness into his life, she says she's very worried in a way which indicates she's not worried at all.
The idea that $10,000 a week (base rental, Waldorf salad and Tiffany baubles extra) can buy inspiration might be a relief, and the idea that it's all going to work out in the end is refreshing. The Day of the Locust has ordinary human impulses aggregating into evil; The Muse has ordinary human impulses coalescing for good. Brooks brings perfect casting, wry, sharp dialogue and unrepentant sentiment to his story of a good guy finishing first -- and the storytelling is far too smart to come off sappy.