on December 10, 2003
Nobody does comedy like Steve Martin, and nobody writes comedy like Steve Martin, either. His comedy is borderline wacky, and he is the expert at physical humor, but unlike Jim Carrey he knows when to contain himself, how to make a real character, and how to make those zany qualities work just right.
His writing is dazzling and offbeat and wacky and outrageous. Part of my computer's harddrive is dedicated to old Steve Martin albums from "Saturday Night Live" and his standup routines. I give him credit for coming up with the word "Google" in his "Googlephonics" skit. But anyway.
"L.A. Story" (1991) is Martin's homage to Los Angeles. It's a slapstick comedy and a touching romance story. Sometimes we get jokes nearing ridiculous, and sometimes we get moments of pure reality. Normally this uneven blending of two very different genres would never work, but give the guy credit for making it work splendidly well.
In "L.A. Story," Martin plays Wacky Weatherman Harris K. Telemacher, the type of loony guy you sometimes wish would take the place of those boring meterologists on your local news channel that point at their boards and seem as if they're about to fall asleep. Harris has got it all, living the highlife in rich L.A. with a beautiful gal (Marilu Henner) and a great job. But then, one day, he's fired, his girlfriend dumps him for his agent (Kevin Pollack), and he's got nowhere to go in life.
That's when he meets Sara (Victoria Tennant, Martin's real-life wife), a British journalist researching L.A. for a news article. Harris takes her on a tour of L.A. "Some of these buildings are over twenty years old," he says.
Harris also sparks a relationship with a young ditz named SanDeE* (Sarah Jessica Parker), who doesn't care if she's being used as long as she's having fun. She twirls around and does cartwheels and makes Harris feel young again.
And thrown together with all this is an electronic highway sign. The sign gives Harris a riddle to unscramble throughout the film, and when the answer is finally revealed it's pure Steve Martin humor.
Steve Martin has a way of parodying anything. I laughed so hard at "L.A. Story" I cried; but then the movie takes a break from being silly and throws in lots of romance and such. But, unlike other movies, it seems to fit perfectly. It's beautiful and offbeat. It sort of reminds me of last year's "Punch-Drunk Love," only "L.A. Story" seems to have a bit more purpose and the characters are a lot more likable. It's also a lot funnier.
This is probably one of the most quotable films of all time. It's not as good as Martin's "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" (1987), but I'll admit that Martin's writing lends better one-liners than the former (which is strangely funnier, though). I just can't get enough of Steve Martin's wonderful wit. Every time you think that "L.A. Story" is settling down to go into the typical romantic comedy cliches, such as the slow-motion shower scene with the beautiful woman splashing her wet hair over the camera, something happens. (In this case, we see Harris in HIS shower, bathing himself and glancing down at the tap. One knob says "Slow Motion," he turns it, and suddenly he's splashing over his hair and the camera in slow motion.)
The movie features cameos ranging from Rick Moranis (who has starred in four films with Martin), Patrick Stewart, Woody Harrelson and even Chevy Chase. The best is undoubtedly Moranis' British gravedigger ("Finally," Harris says, "a funny gravedigger!") I wouldn't want to ruin some of the scenes or quotes, but the beginning sequence with Harris in his car, swerving through neighbors' backyards and sidewalks and down stairs to avoid rush hour traffic, had me laughing hysterically, and so did a scene where he grabs a handgun from his glove compartment and gets in a road duel with a delivery truck.
They key to all this humor, I think, is how delightfully over the top and realistic it is. Martin finds a funny social topic -- such as restaurant booking procedures -- and stretches it out into the absurd. And you know what? It works. Because it's Steve Martin. And Steve Martin has hit gold with "L.A. Story." Fans and non-fans alike will love this movie. And I'm going to end with a quote from the film:
"Sitting there at that moment I thought of something else Shakespeare said. He said, 'Hey...life is pretty stupid; with lots of hubbub to keep you busy, but really not amounting to much.' Of course, I'm paraphrasing: 'Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.'"
I love that wild wit.