A DVD REVIEW: THE MUSE (USA Entertainment) [Archive] - Audio & Video Forums


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12-14-2005, 01:41 PM

I had never been exposed to this little gem of a sleeper comedy directed by Albert Brooks until my ex told me I "absolutely had to see it" because I would be able to relate to the main character being a writer and suffering from the strategies and stresses they do suffer from; from the moment I watched her DVD copy of it, I was instantly hooked, plopping down to watch it every single night -- almost -- with her before we went to bed. It became so routine I began to learn the lines from it and started rattling them off almost instantly.

With an almost-independent feel to the flick, Albert Brooks' The Muse was released by USA Entertainment (as in USA Network) on DVD but subsequently pulled from shelves just recently because of its unpopular status; it has indeed become a "cult classic" of sorts amongst the crowd that knows and appreciates it -- and that’s not gonna be everybody. I have watched this picture with people other than my ex and they just don’t get it -- and in order to "get it," you need to understand Brooks' absolutely cant-take-anymore sarcasm in which he injects the main character with. Don’t go into this "getting that" aspect of it, and you wont appreciate The Muse. Definitely being able to relate to the main character (played by Brooks himself), this title had been on my Want List for a long time now -- but, as many of you collectors know, it was one of those titles I just didn’t get around to buying because so many others simply came before it that seemed....well...you know....more important....

And so I recently found myself hunting down this title in stores but to my dismay learned it was yanked from shelves and the only way I was able to find it was online, "like new" for around six to eight bucks or so; I had no problem with that. My copy arrived just a couple of days ago, and I sat down to revisit this title last night with yet another who has seen the film and appreciates the sarcastic, dry humor delivery Brooks extends here in spades. It was like watching it for the first time.

Brooks, who as I said earlier directed this film as well, stars as Steven Phillips, a successful Hollywood screenwriter who hits a wall in his career, sending his personality sour and his remarks to people hysterically sarcastic in nature; the film opens with a room full of people at an award ceremony, where Cybil Shepherd is hosting the event and we learn that Brooks' character is receiving some kind of lifetime achievement award for his writing. We already get a glance at Brooks' cynical, sarcastic nature (of his character, that is) early on in this sequence based on his replies and comments to the crowd after receiving the award. It is here that we are also introduced early on to the other key players on this field, Brooks' wife (played by Andie McDowell) and his two daughters.

Brooks' life begins to spiral out of control (and we have all been there in our respective careers -- I know I have in the writing field which is particularly difficult at times) when he has a meeting with one of the heads of Paramount Pictures in L.A., an evil, self-centered "typical Hollywood" type, who tells Brooks over a lunch meeting that his writing is pretty much no good anymore. Brooks, being confident in his work, is absolutely stunned and insulted especially when he is told Paramount "wants him out of his office that day." The last script Brooks turned into them was supposed to be made into an action-genre film, but this corporate prick he is dealing with makes it clear that the script feels "flat" and that "it has been done before." Then, to make matters worse, he suggests to Brooks that perhaps he has lost his edge in writing and should peruse another career -- or at least take some time off. Brooks is absolutely as offended as anyone in this field can be -- believe me I know -- and the banter that goes on back and forth between these two over this "firing lunch" meeting is absolutely brilliant. In between the meeting, different Hollywood characters make their way to the table where they're sitting, including Jennifer Tilly and Lorenzo Laamas -- because they all know the Paramount suit Brooks is sitting with. Brooks' reaction to meeting these people is absolutely priceless -- his sarcastic remarks because of what he is going through at this "meeting" leads to him saying at one point "I don’t want to meet any new people right now...." as the Paramount suit attempts to introduce him to Jennifer Tilly. The scene is hysterical -- again, if you can appreciate and relate to the dry, sarcastic humor on display here.

Being absolutely thrown for a loop with this news that he is being let out of his contract with Paramount, Brooks heads home where McDowell convinces him to reach out to his friend (played by Jeff Bridges) for help because he was once in the same situation with being down and out on his luck in the same field. Brooks goes to see Bridges at his Hollywood mansion, but before he even gets into his house, he notices Sharon Stone heading out in a taxi, immediately making him question Bridges on whether or not he is having an affair with someone. Bridges behaves very mysteriously when pressed about this woman (Stone) and tries to glaze over the topic when Brooks presses him, instead asking Brooks to concentrate on the reason he came to see him. As Brooks explains to Bridges what has happened with his career and Paramount -- at one point hysterically adding "You know, if I didn’t have a family to provide for, I think I'd be out buying heroin right now....I mean....why not?" -- Bridges admits to Brooks that he has an answer for him, no matter how strange the idea is going to sound.

It turns out, according to Bridges, that Sharon Stone was a real-life muse -- a Greek mythological figure sent here to inspire the creativity of artists such as writers and to get their juices flowing again. As far fetched as this sounds, Bridges convinces Brooks that she is the real deal and has helped him with his career and through some very difficult times when he stumbled across "writer's block." Bridges manages to get Brooks an appointment to see Stone so she can look over his writing and try and help him out of his bind he is in because Paramount claimed he had "lost his edge" in his writing. An ecstatic Brooks go to see Stone, where she is currently living in a guest house of her current client. When he first arrives at the main house, before learning that she's in the guest residence, a kid opens the door and questions Brooks as to why he has come without a "gift" for Stone, which sounds odd to Brooks off the bat; the kid makes it clear that he "better have a gift" for her as he shakes his head and closes the door.

Brooks makes his way over to Stone's guest house dwelling (a dwelling I'd be happy living in as you have to see some of these "guest houses" in Hollywood to believe them) not really knowing what to expect at this point, as Stone greets him at the door and informs him that she can't meet with him until the next day; in the meantime, Bridges informs Brooks that he absolutely must buy her a jewelry gift from Tiffany's, where Brooks doesn't even shop for his own wife. It seems the only way to win over this muse's affection to help inspire creativity is to buy her expensive jewels. Brooks goes to Tiffany's on Rodeo Drive to seek out a gift for Stone -- but being the cheap ass that he is, he tries to find something along the lines of 50 or 60 bucks. During his "shopping dilemma," he runs into one of his wife's friends in the store who thinks he is buying a surprise piece of jewelry for McDowell -- until she overhears the saleswoman saying to Brooks "Now, being that you don’t know this woman....." immediately making the wife's friend believe Brooks is buying the jewelry for another woman and he's having an affair.

Of course, word gets back to McDowell, who confronts Brooks about buying the jewelry at Tiffany's for this strange woman (which didn’t turn out to be jewelry, but a 60-dollar Tiffany key ring) and Brooks acts very mysteriously regarding Stone, telling McDowell that he cant "say much about it right now." Of course, McDowell suspects him of cheating (or at least that's suggested) while Brooks concentrates on his first meeting with Stone. When he arrives back at her guest house dwelling, he notices all the expensive diamond necklaces and jewelry lying around her place and tells her he thinks he may have gotten her the wrong gift when he brings her the key ring. Stone informs Brooks that she has read some of his work and she has decided to take him on as a client and help him with his writing -- Brooks is absolutely ecstatic until Stone begins reading off a list of things she needs while he is her client: this involves a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel, a limousine, complete dietary needs....Brooks' reaction is absolutely priceless as he can't believe what he is hearing and what he needs to chip in for to make Stone comfortable. Stone demands these things as if they were nothing at all, and informs Brooks that if he wants to write a successful script, he is going to have to "invest" in Stone's needs and time. To put Stone in a poolside suite at the Four Seasons in L.A. costs him nearly $1700 a day, but he does it thinking he's going to still be inspired by this muse. He talks his way out of supplying a limo for Stone to be on call 24 hours a day, and offers to be her personal driver for whatever she needs, but he never guessed the kind of nightmare this decision was going to turn into.

From this point on, Brooks is downright tortured by Stone -- between phone calls in the middle of the night complaining about the room service at the Four Seasons to her getting cravings for Wardolf Salads and requiring bobby pins to Brooks traveling in the wee hours of the morning to bring her all this stuff, his life becomes exhausting just to keep up with Stone's needs -- and she still hasn't sat down to help him write anything yet. Some scenes here get downright hysterical and gut-busting as we watch Brooks start to lose his patience and sanity with each of Stone's demands which get larger and larger. Then, a turning point, or so we think, in the film takes place when Stone brings Brooks to an aquarium in Long Beach, CA, which just opened, and Brooks is suddenly hit with the inspiration for writing a script for a film that would star Jim Carrey in a fish tank setting (the concept is not really that funny to us, the audience, but you have to just go with it).

It is at this point that the sub plot of the story develops, in which McDowell goes to lunch with Stone and gets to know her. Stone ends up talking her into starting her own cookie business, which infuriates Brooks because he was supposed to be using Stone for her abilities to help him write and now his wife is getting inspiration from her to help her start a business. Stone introduces McDowell, after sampling some of her cookies, to Wolfgang Puck, who flips out over the cookies and hosts a party at his restaurant Spago to push them on the market. A very hysterical scene takes place here, where Brooks is attempting to speak with one of the foreign guests at the party who cant really understand English to well, and the conversation is downright hilarious as Brooks loses his patience multiple times with this guy and reacts in such a disheartened, sarcastic manner it borders on lunacy.

Believe it or not, McDowell talks Brooks into letting Stone stay in their house instead of the Four Seasons Hotel, where after multiple nights in their guest house/room/office, Stone is invited by McDowell to stay in their bedroom, kicking Brooks out and into his office to sleep. At this point, many funny happenings transpire here, such as directors like Martin Scorsese and James Cameron coming to Brooks' house to see Stone for "inspiration" and Stone running into Rob Reiner (when they're in the aquarium in Long Beach); it seems all of Hollywood knows this muse and uses her for inspiration in their work. Still, to this moment, Brooks has not yet had a moment alone with Stone to discuss any ideas she may have for his writing. That's what makes the whole thing really funny at this point. In the meantime, Brooks is still running ridiculous errands for Stone and re-painting the guest room (before she moves into their bedroom) to her liking and taking all kinds of bordering-on-verbal-abuse from this muse. On top of all this, McDowell has launched her cookie business, which Brooks doesn’t believe they'll be able to afford as she has rented out an old bakery with stoves and all to make her cookies -- and still, Brooks has not sit down to write a new script yet. Even his own kids have been smitten with Stone's allure, calling her "Aunt Sara" and kissing her goodbye when they leave for school instead of kissing their own father. Finally, Stone gives Brooks an idea to finish his "Jim Carrey aquarium" script, which he sends to Paramount and which they love. The only problem is, Rob Reiner was given the same idea by Stone -- and Universal Pictures wants to film his version. Brooks is absolutely floored as he thinks Stone gave him AND Reiner both the idea for the story and Reiner beat him to it by submitting the script to Universal. After hearing Brooks talk about this "muse," the Paramount corporate suit from the beginning of the film who had a problem with Brooks' work thinks him to be really certifiable and kicks him out of his office just when Brooks thought everything was changing for him.

Brooks and McDowell get a visit by two "doctors" from a sanatorium in Cincinnati that claim to be in charge of Stone who they say is a schizophrenic patient with multiple personalities and who escapes regularly. Before these rather non-Kosher "doctors" can scoop up Stone to be brought back to the clinic, it seems she has escaped from Brooks' house out the window, letting McDowell and him to believe that she was in fact a phony schizophrenic claiming to be a muse. Just when things couldn’t get any worse, Brooks is working at his wife's cookie shop she had opened when he gets a call from his agent saying that Universal pulled the plug on Reiner's film and that Paramount wants to make HIS version of the film based on his script. His agent tells him to get his ass down to Paramount right away for a creative meeting and Brooks is absolutely ecstatic. But when he arrives, he learns that "Josh," the arrogant guy he was handing his scripts into at Paramount, had been caught stealing and let go. While this makes Brooks happy to no end, he is shocked when "Christine," the new person taking over for Josh, turns out to be Stone.....with a whole new look. Brooks' only reaction can be "oh ****....." as Stone whisks him out of the office and exclaims "Let's go have a nice big lunch.....you have money on you, don’t you?" Now, this schizophrenic patient has taken on the personality of a motion picture studio executive!

For those of you that never saw this, I guarantee some chuckles from Albert Brooks' The Muse -- even if you don't ultimately appreciate the sarcastic humor injected within its dialogue. If you do appreciate it and can relate -- all the better. You will quickly find this to be a most rewatchable title, no doubt. But as I mentioned, this title is no longer available on retailer's shelves and the only way to acquire it would be pre-owned via the Internet, which is what I did. To me, it was well worth the $8 with shipping that I paid. This is a title that I will no doubt revisit again and again.

USA Entertainment has made The Muse available as a single-disc, keepcase-oriented presentation on DVD, with a humorous cover shot depicting Stone, Brooks and McDowell and Brooks scowling at Stone with massive distaste.

Surprisingly, for such an underground, cult-fan-followed title, USA has made The Muse available in a choice of widescreen or full screen formats on the same disc; the widescreen presentation, reviewed here, filled my 16X9 55" screen with no letterboxing and the image quality was excellent. Colors were rich, deep and vibrant where they needed to be and there was no grain, artifacting, haloing, or even edge enhancement to cause any problems with the presentation; a very nice, smooth transfer for such an unknown feature. Surprisingly good-looking.

With two English soundtracks on board, a Dolby Digital 5.0 and 2.0, I of course ran the default 5.0 mix, which left much to be desired. I understand this was not War of the Worlds in DTS, but nothing -- simply nothing -- was going on here. Forget the missing LFE track -- not necessary for a film of this caliber I suppose -- the whole mix was flat and uninvolving, requiring raising of my master volume levels to way, way beyond normal range just to hear the dialogue clearly and loudly enough. Once there, the track is clear and free of hiss or distortion, but the overall dynamics and "power" are weak -- no oooooomph to this track at all. And it seems more like a "glorified mono" track than something prepared for 5.0 usage -- sure, some VERY VERY light score spills into the surrounds at rare moments and you may get the occasional chirping of birds from behind or above you, but these effects are extremely difficult to make out or get excited over; it is a front-focused affair with definite stereo separation in the mains but little else going on.

That’s always the complaint I have about most dramas and comedies on DVD and why I never get excited about having them in my collection in the first place (other than if they're simply great films that you have to own): their soundtracks are usually weak and anemic and simply uninvolving. Yes, there were some (although mysterious to me in terms of marketing) rich DTS tracks on titles like Along Came Polly and Meet the Fockers, but that's where the accolades for these tracks ends: at "rich." In no way are they aggressive, bombarding or even loud to say the least and most of the time they require a ton of amplification to heat up and get going -- and I don’t like that. I understand that the subject material doesn't call for overtly hot level cooking or wild channel panning on these titles, but I feel like some more work and concern could have been applied to many of them, especially in the "low decibel" department -- as if they're not mastered at a level anywhere near an action film's.

As a matter of comparison and explanation, I had my master volume on my receiver up to "50" just to be able to hear the dialogue comfortably on The Muse -- and at that point, most action soundtracks are beginning to heat up in many instances. Here, the volume of the dialogue and its intelligibility was not even recognizable until "50" and could have used a ton more amplifier power to be honest. So, excellent video quality overshadows the disc's poor audio performance.