L.A. Story (1991) Retro Review

Steve Martin is no longer a common fixture in our popular culture, but from the late ‘70s onward he produced a slew of entertainments: comedy specials, music singles, books, and films. That he wrote L.A. Story is obvious, for it bears his signature touches: whimsy and garish crudity.

Martin is a performer through and through, an accomplished singer and banjo player, a lover of the classics, and charming to boot. Much of that charm springs from the alternating wave form of his humor: He is the smartest guy in the room acting like a buffoon, except when he actually is a buffoon and just thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room. Though sometimes, after a bit has come and gone, retrospectively he was the smartest guy in the room all along. When focused on a single narrative and putting that snide self-consciousness to work for him, you get a thoroughly hilarious comedy, like 1979’s The Jerk. However, as Martin aged and continued his exploits in the entertainment world, his iconoclasm, as with most performers, became a brand.

I’m not sure what that brand does for you so far as Martin’s 2000s work is concerned, but back in the ‘90s we crossed the bridge from the Three Amigos, Roxanne, and Planes, Trains and Automobiles days and into My Blue Heaven, The Out-of-Towners, and Bowfinger (though who doesn’t love 1991’s heartwarming Father of the Bride?).

L.A. Story falls neatly between the tracks.

Unlike The Jerk, Martin’s L.A. Story concerns a protagonist that seems to be a stand-in for Martin himself. He is self-aware, quippy, and is usually the cleverest guy in the room. And unfortunately, Harris K. Telemacher (Martin) isn’t sure whether he’s taking us deeper into a screwball comedy or a comedic romance.

It is as much a story about L.A. as it is about the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Film stock was bright and neon, fashions were dotty, trends were coming and going. And L.A. then, as it is now, was a hodge podge of all of that, a moving snapshot of decadence, paradisal weather and swingers.

L.A. Story veers wildly in its tone and features such surreality as talking Freeway Signs, rambunctiously over the top earthquakes, a queue of muggers at an ATM and freeway shoot-outs. But it also contains such surreal truths as the trendiness of high colonics, the Hard Rock Cafe, casual cosmetic surgery, the brutal lengths one will go to to beat freeway traffic, and Enya (the soundtrack contains three of her songs).

Telemacher is the “wacky weather man” for LA, a job that requires not a quantum of the brain power Telemacher used to earn his doctorate, since the weather is always 72 degrees or raining. The story is more a collection of vignettes featuring Telemacher bored beyond belief with his comfortable life in Los Angeles. He is reinvigorated by the arrival of London journalist Sara (Victoria Tennant) who asks Telemacher to be her tour guide. They begin to date, but as Los Angeles is a city of pratfalls, they are both soon embroiled in other relationships and their own mild neuroses.

Editing is crucial in a comedy, more so than with any other genre of film. Dramatic films can be sustained on good direction or great screenplays, horror by the density of its atmosphere, but comedy lives and dies on cutting a scene exactly where it needs it and moving at a fluid pace that engenders the levity. L.A. Story is bumpy. It is a product of its times and a flimsy pretense to give Steve Martin a place to mug and critique his silly city.

There are moments of genuine heart in L.A. Story, such as when Telemacher and Sara step into a Hollywood storefront and became child versions of themselves, but the scene comes jarringly after an inexplicable and unseen love scene between the two of them, and is followed and preceded by more cartoonish antics.

The cartoonish antics are a hoot, especially for those who live or work in the absurdest city in North America, and the film has more than its share of well-earned laughs (and hilarious cameos, e.g. Patrick Stewart as the maitre’d of L’Idiot) but it is an uneven picture. Martin the screenwriter loves L.A. dearly but his romance with Sara is too cloying in the midst of a mostly sketch-driven comedy.

L.A. Story (1991)
PG-13
Directed by Mick Jackson
TriStar Pictures
95 Minutes

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