The strongest element of the Steve Martin-penned and Mick Jackson-directed “L.A. Story” isn’t just how funny the jokes are but how sincere it is about love.
Here is a romantic comedy overflowing with abstract, bizarre touches that make us recall how Martin’s brand of humor launched with his radical stand-up routines from a “wild and crazy guy.”
That side is visible in 1991’s “L.A. Story” as it was in most of his early films. When the comedy contemplates how much love causes us to ache and doubt our choices, the film is bold about that, too.
Martin stars as Harris K. Telemacher, a meteorologist (in the loosest sense of the word) whose TV gig and blasé romance with a socialite (Marilu Henner) leave him dissatisfied and empty. Harris is bemused, even in awe of Los Angeles, which he views as a mystical place but neither his girlfriend nor anyone at his job takes him very seriously.
When Harris meets the visiting Sara (Victoria Tennant), it awakens something in him and gives him a perspective on his life that is new and unguarded, Harris’s casual friendship and eventual infatuation with Sara rattles him. Likewise, a freeway sign that begins “talking” to Harris and offering him dating advice.
In Martin’s vision, L.A. is dreamy and weird, and Jackson’s dazzling film matches the bold humor and striking originality of Martin’s prose. Some compared this to a Woody Allen film when it arrived in 1991, which is all wrong.
“L.A. Story” is no “Annie Hall” and goes much further than Allen would at trying a joke that could alienate his audience (only Allen’s 1972 “Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know About Sex” is similarly zany but aggressively weird).
“L.A. Story” is full of casual surrealism, absurdist comedy, stream of conscious jokes and, yes, wild and crazy wackiness that materializes than vanishes in take-it-or-leave-it increments.
The opening scene of Telemacher’s insane drive to work is shot and edited like an action movie. It’s a clever and ambitious touch that illustrates why Jackson was the smartest choice for this. He’s English and an outsider, just like Tennant and her character.
This is the best vehicle Martin has ever had and not simply because his distinctive brand of humor (sometimes witty, sometimes downright childish) is presented in such an undiluted manner. Martin has found a director with a stylish eye to present this fairytale world of Los Angeles. Jackson makes this whimsical realm of endless possibilities seem less like the city of Brotherly Love and more an alternate reality, where our emotions are manifested into the atmosphere, into the street signs and into the weather.
FAST FACT: Sarah Jessica Parker indirectly credits “L.A. Story” for landing her iconic “Sex and the City” role. The former helped her nab “Honeymoon in Vegas,” launching a career that would direct her to the HBO series.
Tennant was married to Martin when they made this — her character has a gentle but restless side that the actress nicely taps into. There is a natural chemistry between her and Martin that confirms that the pairing of husband and wife worked here.
Richard E. Grant turns a nothing role of Sara’s cultured but odd boyfriend into a delight. Henner is a great match for Martin (she’s as well paired with the actor as Goldie Hawn ever was). There’s also Rick Moranis’ wonderful, goofy cameo as a Shakespearean gravedigger (which includes an update on the “I knew him, Horatio, a man of infinite jest”).
The sincerity of the romanticism is why this is my favorite of the films Martin wrote. As a longtime fan, there’s lots of highlights to choose from, like the ahead-of-its-time self-reflexive “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” (1982), the quotable Hollywood satire “Bowfinger (1999) and Martin’s adaptation of his own novella, “Shopgirl” (2005).
This latter title is of interest because of how unflattering it paints the protagonist, played by Martin. His rich, mysterious and questionable older man making a pass at the young, impressionable Neiman Marcus employee (Claire Danes) doesn’t play like a condescending male fantasy and doesn’t go easy on Martin’s character when his behavior isn’t just hurtful but repellent.
Similarly, though far less critical, in “L.A. Story,” when Telemacher has a thoughtless, “stupid” fling with “SanDeE*,” played by a sublimely bubbly Sarah Jessica Parker, who isn’t playing a dumb blonde but a giddy free spirit, who is simply too much for Telemacher to grasp.
Telemacher’s dalliance with “SanDeE*” is a betrayal and Martin knows it, not easily letting Harris off the hook for disappointing Sara and us.
The gags about L.A. freeway shootings are, perhaps, not as funny anymore. Likewise, a throwaway gag about a friendly mugger. The aggressively ’90s style is, perhaps, dated, though the TV commercial look of it is in synch with the film’s contrast of the slick, consumerist aspects of Harris’ life that he dislikes, versus the genuine beauty he encounters with Sara.
Martin’s dialog is full of droll, hilarious non sequiturs, like “I could never be a woman…I’d just stay at home and play with my breasts all day.” There are also humble, profound observations, like this beauty that Martin lodges at Tennet:
“When I’m around you, I find myself showing off, which is the idiot’s version of being interesting.”
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The subplot about Telemacher’s best friend is malnourished (the character barely registers) but was likely kept because to cut those scenes would be to lose some good laughs. This includes a goofy bit where Telemacher invades a museum on roller skates and creates performance art.
A sequence in which Martin and Tennet enter a garden, briefly become children again and experience a sort of euphoric bliss as Enya fills the soundtrack, has been heavily criticized, Whenever I bring the film up, that’s the scene many say doesn’t hold up, is the most dated, etc. I find the scene, with its lush visuals and earnestness, to be a rapturous mediation on the kind of awe we experience as children.
Likewise, the big climax, in which the magical realism that has been dished out in minor doses now comes at us in a gale force.
It’s a silly, magical film that expresses how love that is hard-earned and complex is so much better than the infatuations and lustful distractions that waste our time. When he made this, Martin was “growing up” creatively (his play “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” and serious roles in “Grand Canyon” and “The Spanish Prisoner” would follow) and maturing as a father figure on film (his wonderful turn in “Parenthood” led him to a string of Dad roles, long before he himself would become a father).
“L.A. Story” is a transitional work for the brilliant comic, in which he firmly taps into the deft silliness of his initial Carl Reiner vehicles and finds both the heart and melancholy spirit of an artist expressing joy and wonder at the city that swirls around him.