Altered Fates


The Muse is light summer fare about a middle-aged Hollywood screenwriter so desperate to brainstorm a light summer fare he hires a Greek goddess to help him. The premise feels practically weightless, but because the writer is played by the doggedly earthbound Albert Brooks (who also cowrote and directed), The Muse is as consistently funny as it is smartly tooled.

A harried Beverly Hills paterfamilias with a wife (Andie MacDowell) and two little girls, Brooks is introduced at a dinner ceremony where an unimpressed Cybill Shepherd—the golden shiksa he lusted after so long ago in Taxi Driver—presents him with Hollywood’s lowest form of recognition, a humanitarian award. “I’m the king of the room,” he quips to total silence. Nor is it much solace that the award itself, as his daughter observes driving home in the car, “looks like a penis.”

That joke may be The Muse‘s single concession to the youth market, but it serves to direct the movie toward the psychosexual. The Muse is a tale of midlife crisis rendered additionally fanciful and self-reflexive for being steeped in Hollywood, as well as generational, paranoia. Brooks is summoned for a story conference in which his typically sarcastic one-liners are jotted down by the same glib young junior executive who has just rejected his latest script (and terminates his contract) for lack of “edge.”

The writer’s immaculately staged humiliation continues after he requests a meeting with his “old friend” Steven Spielberg. As related by Brooks in his recent Playboy interview, Spielberg refused to allow his onetime buddy to film the scene at Amblin; thus, Brooks was free to invent an imaginary “Spielberg Building” as the site for his character’s suitably Kafka-esque confrontation with the omnipotent (and unrepresentable) personification of show business law. But perhaps Spielberg is not the only deity on Mount Olympus. Who, in this premillennial year, doesn’t believe in magic, witchcraft, angels? Certainly not screenwriters looking to enchant the American public.

Brooks discovers the equivalent of a secret Hollywood cult when his Oscar-winning, aggressively youthful colleague (Jeff Bridges) reveals that the source of his recent success has been his professional relationship with a real-life muse, which is to say, an actual daughter of Zeus. “I must look pretty pathetic that you have to be soothing me with this fairy tale,” Brooks snaps even as he grovels for Bridges to set up a meeting. The muse, as all New York City pedestrians know, is Sharon Stone, and, her sense of fun something of an untapped resource since Basic Instinct, the actress spoons down the role like vanilla ice cream.

Stone is a New Age vision of flowing scarves and sparkly outfits, delicate fan-fluttering, and mad, irrevocable impulse. This flighty creature would have doubtless struck mythologist-poet Robert Graves as a vulgar travesty of his Triple Goddess, but having carved out a niche somewhere between a shrink and an agent, she wafts through the movie as pure eau de celeb. Deigning to take on Brooks as a client, she immediately begins demanding her sacrifices. “How long will this muse-ing process take?” he can’t help but grumble when she requests a $1700-per-day suite at the Four Seasons and a 24-hour limo—albeit knocking down the price somewhat by taking the chauffeur job himself.

The muse inspires only indirectly, obliging Brooks to read her whims as oracular. When she insists on going to the Long Beach aquarium, the initially annoyed writer is driven to an epiphany: This could be the location for a possible Jim Carrey movie! (Graciously indulgent, the muse takes credit for Carrey’s own breakthrough—”I’m very proud of The Truman Show“—before snapping her fingers to erase the admission from Brooks’s mind.) As if to confirm her powers, Rob Reiner shows up to thank her profusely for The American President and, by way of appreciation, spontaneously hand over his gold watch.

Brooks is instantly jealous and, once the muse sets up residence in his house, becomes all the more so. Stone transfers her attentions to MacDowell, who is encouraged to embark upon a sensational new career even as her resentful husband keeps tripping over the likes of James Cameron and Martin Scorsese making emergency muse consultations on his dime. The comic nightmare reaches a climax of sorts at a Spago success party thrown for MacDowell—where, however thwarted, insulted, or ignored, Brooks is never at a loss for a line.

Although providing Brooks ample opportunity to exercise his trademark combination of single-mindedly self-absorbed neediness, aggrieved obsession, and tormented, sarcastic self-consciousness, The Muse lacks Mother’s surefire psychological hook. Closer to Defending Your Life, Brooks’s earlier parody of the supernaturalist film blanc, The Muse‘s deceptive slightness masks a darker purpose. The Brooks character is stuck searching for his script’s missing third act when the movie unexpectedly provides one. In a plot device more characteristic of Alfred Hitchcock than American Pie, The Muse uncorks a revelation that radically shifts its conceptual grounds.

Not the least impressive thing about Brooks’s light comedy (as well as Stone’s comic performance) is that the industry satire deepens on a second viewing. This Hollywood may be no less deluded than the one presented in Steve Martin’s Bowfinger, but fear and trembling is a far greater part of the equation. Knowing the muse’s secret only hones The Muse‘s edge.

Another example of understated smartcom, included in the Walter Reade’s current Latin American roundup, Martin Rejtman’s Silvia Prieto is set in a world of Buenos Aires slackers. The unsmiling 27-year-old title character (Rosario Blefari, a fixture on the local indie rock–experimental theater scene) is a curious mixture of depression and spontaneity, living a life at once reductively organized and totally haphazard.

Although no particular emphasis is placed on local color in the movie’s Buenos Aires, a place of cheap restaurants and small apartments, it is a sort of surreal city symphony nonetheless. Silvia’s milieu is circumscribed by absurd coincidences, meaningless transactions, and the aimless circulation of objects—an Armani sports jacket, a bottle of shampoo, a souvenir china doll. That the latter comes to be known as Silvia Prieto is indicative of Rejtman’s interest in the fluid nature of identity. (His Buenos Aires is less Evita’s tangoville than the city of Jorge Luis Borges.)

As the human Silvia Prieto misplaces her ID and rival “Silvia Prietos” proliferate, other characters lose their names altogether. Silvia and a look-alike called Brite, after the detergent samples she hands out on street corners, lackadaisically trade ex-husbands (who then turn out to be former schoolmates). Returning to Argentina from mysterious Los Angeles, Brite’s ex reverts to the inexplicable childhood nickname “Bottle Lamp,” then, with the casual causality that characterizes the entire project, swaps fates with someone else.

Rejtman’s scenes are often based on trifling non sequiturs; his low-key compositions feel studied without seeming especially rigorous. The lighting is dependably flat; it’s the sense of alternate lives that casts the shadows.