In the overall chain of events required to make a movie, none of the links are as important as that of the screenwriter and his/her script. Although the performers and directors get all of the attention, money and/or credit for a film's success, without the lesser-known screenwriter, none of that would be possible.
Of course, with all of the flotsam out there masquerading as good stories, many might be inclined to think of the screenwriter as the guilty party and thus the weakest of the links. While that's occasionally correct, often the finished stories that you see on the silver screen have been filtered, edited and otherwise modified by any number of people down the chain and thus are far from what the writer originally envisioned and wrote.
It's no wonder, then, that screenwriters are often a neurotic and occasionally psychotic bunch. Not only do they have to watch their "offspring" being changed before their eyes, but they must also contend with the dreaded and awful writer's block. For anyone who's ever attempted to write something longer than a letter or short story, there's nothing worse than having that blank sea of white (or nowadays, the blank computer screen) staring you in the face as if to mock your untalented attempts.
Being a screenwriter himself, writer/director/star Albert Brooks ("Mother," "Defending Your Life") has more than likely encountered that creative demon himself, and he uses that concept to comic effect in his latest film, "The Muse." Playing off the notion that such writers will desperately seek any sort of creative inspiration to get their fingers going, this intelligent if not entirely satisfactory film should please Brooks' hardcore fans, but should have a harder time entertaining the average moviegoer.
With the laughs less obvious and abundant than in his last outing, "Mother," a less compelling plot than in "Defending Your Life" and with a few too many insider Hollywood jokes, this may prove to be one of Brooks' weaker efforts. As is the case with the similarly cerebral but neurotic characters played by Woody Allen, Brooks' schtick is something of an acquired taste. While I've personally enjoyed his past characterizations, the one here feels a bit too repetitive, stuffy and increasingly irritating. The result of that and the fact that he doesn't deliver or elicit enough laughs to compensate for that problems means that we consequently don't like his character all that much, which is a big problem for any movie, let alone a comedy.
An even bigger one, however, is when a film's material is either too narrowly defined -- and thus goes over the audience's heads -- or simply isn't that funny. That first point pertains to the movie's many Hollywood references. While this obviously isn't the first film to focus on the inner workings of Tinseltown -- others, such as the great "The Player" have previously done so -- it's another one that plays better to those who are movie savvy.
While it's fortunate not to be too insider heavy and thus difficult to watch, it does have plenty of name dropping -- "Carrie" director Brian De Palma wants Steven's old office -- and cameo appearances -- directors James Cameron ("Titanic") and Martin Scorsese ("GoodFellas") seek advice from the muse. That ensures that those "in the know" will better grasp such humor than those who don't recognize such names or faces.
The film's biggest error, though, is that it's just not that funny. While Brooks delivers his trademark, amusing asides to what others say or do, there aren't enough of them. To compound that problem, neither the story itself nor the described movie plot that Steven's writing and discussing are funny either. While the latter could be intentional to a) be a scathing remark about Hollywood's vision of big budget, big name comedies or b) prevent someone else from taking the idea and turning it into a full-fledged film of their own, the end result is a rather flat comedy.
The whole gist of having the muse progressively disrupt Steven's life and pay more attention to others soon becomes more irritating than funny, and Brooks and cowriter Monica Johnson don't offer up enough other material to take up the slack. While the muse is obviously Steven's comic foil, she's not even in the same league as Debbie Reynolds' maternal character in "Mother." Thus, this film suffers from not having as strong a character to bedevil Brooks' character and his neuroses.
Unfortunately, the performances from the great cast don't help matters much. As earlier mentioned, Albert Brooks plays his normal neurotic and complaint-filled character, but becomes clearly too irritating and nearly constipated in action for his or the film's overall good.
Although some may state that Sharon Stone ("Gloria," "Basic Instinct") has already appeared in plenty of comedies -- okay, they weren't intentional -- she really can't do much with her character as it's written here. Although that -- and her awful looking hairstyles -- are finally explained by a late in the game revelation, such info comes too late.
Supporting performances -- beyond the many cameos by real Hollywood personas -- are okay, with Andie MacDowell ("Four Weddings and A Funeral," "Multiplicity") delivering a decent, if unremarkable take on Steven's entrepreneurial wife. Meanwhile, Jeff Bridges ("Arlington Road," "The Big Lebowski") is pretty much wasted in a smaller role, although he gets a mildly funny bit involving his tennis game.
While the film offers a few generally funny moments -- including Steven's "walk" through the Universal Studio's lot to see a certain Mr. Spielberg, and later trying to explain his occupation to a man who doesn't grasp English that well -- most of the other humor is too low-key when it needs to be more outrageous. Although it's clearly not an awful film and Brooks' fans will probably enjoy it, they'll certainly admit it's clearly not one of his better efforts. Thus, "The Muse" rates as just a 5 out of 10.