The Muse (review)

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Boys Don’t Cry

Oh, men and their midlife crises… Will we never see the end of this as suitable subject matter for comedies, tragedies, and everything in between? While middle-aged men dominate the production of film, probably not. So, is The Muse a satire on this particular brand of male insecurity, or is it more of the same-old, same-old?

Steven Phillips (Albert Brooks: Out of Sight) is a moderately successful Hollywood screenwriter. He can’t afford not to work, and he hasn’t gotten the Oscar yet, but he did just receive a humanitarian award — the joke, of course, is that everyone gets one of those eventually, like the feel-good Employee of the Month plaque corporations pass out like candy as morale boosters. His latest script is “no good,” according to the studio exec overseeing his three-picture deal — bad enough that Josh Martin (Mark Feuerstein: Practical Magic), professional weasel and celebrity ass-kisser, is a good 15 years younger than Steven, but now he’s telling the writer that he’s lost his “edge.” His agent, at least a decade younger than Steven, tells him he’s past his “prime.” Steven is miserable.
But then his friend, the supersuccessful screenwriter Jack Warrick (Jeff Bridges: Simpatico, Arlington Road) tells Steven about his muse. No, really: a literal muse, descended from the gods and all that. She’s amazing, Jack swears — Steven will never write better than with her inspiration.

A parody of the high-maintenance woman, Sarah Liddle (Sharon Stone: Simpatico, Sphere) demands much in return for her services, like a suite (“on a high floor”) at the Four Seasons and, oh yeah, for Steven to be at her beck and call 24/7. There’s nothing sexual about her new relationship with Steven — in fact, the momentary jealousy of his wife, Laura (Andie MacDowell: The End of Violence, Michael) is quickly dispensed with — but Sarah still serves the same purpose that young mistresses are supposed to offer older men: as a way to roll back the years to refind the younger, more vigorous man. Steven’s creativity may be the only thing in need of revitalizing, but didn’t Freud or someone connect the creative urge with the procreative urge? (Probably Freud: it was all about sex to him.)

So, here’s Steven juggling the demands of his family, his work, and now the endless pampering of a petulant, manipulative girl-woman, who wears her hair in childish twists, sleeps with a teddy bear, and breaks down in tears when room service can’t cater to her wishes. But he’s writing a script that promises to be a huge summer blockbuster, so he couldn’t be happier. What could go wrong?

Since The Muse is written (with Monica Johnston) and directed by Brooks himself, I’m inclined to go with the “satire on male insecurities” option. Who but Brooks would turn Steven’s newfound, if low-key, manliness around, emasculating the poor guy by having his just-about mistress hook up with his wife? Yup: Sarah starts working with Laura, inspiring her to start the cookie business she has long dreamed of. Not only has Steven lost his muse — he hits writer’s block with the new screenplay — but now he has to face the indignity of having his wife support the family. That’s his job!

The Muse is slight, but it’s like a tall, cool drink on a summer’s day, refreshing and satisfying. Brooks’s trademark deadpan sarcasm doesn’t just take aim at the trials and tribulations of middle-aged men but also takes on New Agey gullibility and the frustration of being a Hollywood writer, the low man on the totem pole. Lots of cameos by famous directors — looking to Sarah for inspiration — liven things up even more. And The Muse even seems to offer an explanation for coincidences like Deep Impact/Armageddon and Volcano/Dante’s Peak.

Actually, now that I think on it, Hollywood would make a whole lot more sense if we knew the whims and vagaries of capricious ancient gods were involved. And so would men’s midlife nervous breakdowns.

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