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The Muse

Oh my goddess!

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Directed by Albert Brooks

Written by Albert Brooks and Monica Johnson

With Albert Brooks, Sharon Stone, Andie MacDowell, Jeff Bridges

Surprises -- both pleasant and unpleasant -- come from the least likely places. Take The Muse, for example. One would expect an Albert Brooks movie to be consistently funny, and one would expect Andie McDowell to be easily interchangeable with blank space without reducing the quality of the film -- and one would be correct. But one would not expect such an exciting and effervescent performance from Sharon Stone as the one which graces this film.

Stone’s character Sarah is a Muse, divine inspirer of art, one of nine immortal daughters of Zeus. The film doesn’t exactly explain why this particular Muse doesn’t seem to specialize in any particular field; this one inspires just about anything. This time around, Sarah is working with a certain Steven Phillips (writer/director Brooks himself), a washed-out screenwriter loosing his edge.

And if a movie ever got a spectacular boost from a great acting job, The Muse is one. Sharon Stone was always more of a movie star than a film actress, her charisma usually overshadowing her acting skills, and her choice of movies being, to put it mildly, not very wise. Here, for the first time since Basic Instinct (and her performance there largely benefited from the shock factor), she manages a perfect blend of skill and charisma, demonstrating a most impressive gift of impeccable comic timing. Stone turns a simple reaction shot, like an act of rolling her eyes at Steven’s cluelessness, into a self-sufficient gag. I would seriously recommend her to forget all those action films, thrillers, and dramas, and start looking for a no-holds-barred screwball comedy, because I’m sure she’d be excellent in such a film.

Stone is really good in The Muse, and this is a good thing, too, because her co-stars are decidedly not up to the task. Brooks himself is effective only when he’s unapologetically satirical, dispensing comic barbs with ruthless efficiency. And this happens quite a lot in the first third of the movie, with him targeting just about every aspect of modern Hollywood business and life. (An aside: good though these barbs may be, there’s a little too many of them, and once in a while the movie starts to feel like one big elaborate in-joke). But, more and more as the film progresses, Brooks forces himself to act either sincere or befuddled, and this is definitely wrong. With his hang-dog expression and round face, Brooks already looks sincere and befuddled, and adding artifice to this natural persona feels as a total overkill (the effect is similar to Tom Cruise trying to act charismatic).

Steven’s wife Laura is played by Andie McDowell, and I think the movie would have been exactly the same if the character were performed by a cardboard cutout. It’s rather painful to see Stone and McDowell act together, their performances being in totally different leagues: in these scenes, Stone has to act for two.

But, despite acting problems, The Muse is not a mediocre film with one great performer. It’s funny from beginning to end, and that’s a pleasant change in this age of one-smile-an-hour comedies. Brooks also increases the entertainment factor by getting several big-name directors (Rob Reiner, James Cameron, Martin Scorsese) to appear in cameo parts and spoof themselves; Scorsese, in particular, is extremely funny. Toward the end, the film’s sense of humor becomes somewhat twisted, since the “great” script that Phillips writes with Sarah’s inspiration sounds just like all standard Hollywood dreck (although I can’t get rid of the doubt that Brooks maybe didn’t do this intentionaly).

Another major plus is a wonderfully neoclassical musical score, sounding vaguely like Mozart -- and it provides by far the biggest surprise of the movie. When the final credits started rolling, I couldn’t really believe my eyes when I read that this effervescent score was composed by Elton John. I guess he was inspired.