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by: Michael Dequina

"I've hit the wall," proclaims Albert Brooks's character toward the beginning of The Muse, and one may feel the same about the writer-director-star after seeing his latest, which ends in a most lackluster fashion. But before the film hits that creative obstruction, Brooks is able to get in a number of jabs at Hollywood, and elicits some nice performances from his cast--that is, once he settles into a comfortable comedic rhythm, which he takes his sweet time to establish.

That rhythm is established with the arrival of the title character, played--in her neverending quest for respectability--by Sharon Stone, who does fare well in this, her first major comic role. Her mysterious Sarah Little claims to be a bonafide daughter of Zeus, bearing the divine gift of inspiration. Boasting a long and illustrious list of satisfied customers--including James Cameron, Rob Reiner, and, in the film's best comic performance, Martin Scorsese--it takes fairly little to convince jobless veteran screenwriter Steven Phillips (Brooks) to employ her services.

Stone obviously has fun sending up her high-maintenance diva image as Sarah, whose gifts come at a steep price; Steven must pay for all of her ridiculous extravagances, such as a deluxe suite at a four-star hotel to late night gourmet snacking food. The laughs arise from these situations are as soft as can be expected, and while there are a few pieces of dialogue where Brooks's famously caustic wit shines through (particularly in Steven's scenes with pompous Hollywood industry types), the film's sense of humor is characterized by a certain gentleness. This makes for pleasantly witty, smile-worthy viewing, but not necessarily gut-busting hilarity, such as the prominent subplot where Sarah inspires Steven's wife Laura (Andie MacDowell) to start up her own business while Steven himself remains bereft of story ideas.

And that's what ultimately happens to Brooks and writing collaborator Monica Johnson. Hard answers about Sarah inevitably must come, and when they do, The Muse's low-fi energy begins to wane. That did not necessarily have to be the case, however, if the explanations propelled the story into a new direction. Instead, though, Brooks and Johnson paint themselves into a corner that they obviously had no idea how to get out of, resorting to a twist ending that is as unsatisfying as it is contrived. Appropriately enough, it seems that Brooks and Johnson needed a muse of their own to really make this film work.

RATING: *** (out of *****)


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