WFTB Score: 12/20
The plot: Wacky weatherman Harris K. Telemacher finds his job and his moribund love life as empty and vacuous as his Los Angeles environs. When English journalist Sara McDowell flies into the City of Angels, he’s thunderstruck; but how will a sign on the freeway help him on the path to true love?
Harris K. Telemacher (Steve Martin) lives and works in Los Angeles but finds it – or more accurately, its bewildering customs – a nightmare. The traffic is terrible, his boss is an idiot, and the people he surrounds himself with, including girlfriend Trudi (Marilu Henner), are awful fakes. At one ghastly lunch, Harris is captivated by the unabashed honesty of English reporter Sara (Victoria Tennant); and the discovery that Trudi has been knocking boots with his agent (for three years!) appears to release him to start wooing the disarming foreigner.
However, things in L.A. are never that simple; Sara is embroiled in a complicated relationship with her dandyish and still devoted ex-husband Roland (Richard E. Grant), while Harris somehow begins a dalliance with bouncy clothes store assistant Sandy – sorry, SanDeE** (Sarah Jessica Parker). It’s a web that Harris will never untangle – at least, not without the unexpected intervention of a talkative digital sign on the freeway.
Having spent his early film career specialising in wildly comic, physically flailing characters, Steve Martin calmed down towards the end of the 80s with films such as Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Parenthood. With these roles, he proved he could do more than make people laugh; in L.A. Story, he shows us he can wryly observe absurdity as well as create it.
Although it’s essentially a love story, Martin doesn’t allow the narrative to overshadow the jokes, which come thick and fast – the gunfight on the freeway, the slo-mo in the shower. A few sketches are more funny peculiar than ha-ha, for example Rick Moranis’ gravedigger from the Dick van Dyke school of Cockney, or Harris, filmed by friend Ariel, roller-skating through the art gallery; but others hit a sweet satirical spot. Patrick Stewart is quite brilliant as the insanely demanding Maître D’ of posh restaurant L’Idiot (“The New Cruelty?” asks Chevy Chase in a fleeting cameo).
The trouble is, by moving away from zany comedy towards smarter material, Martin walks straight into the path of one Mr Allen Konigsberg, aka Woody Allen. Few would argue that Allen is Martin’s equal as a comic actor, but you’d have to really admire Steve, or really dislike Woody, to think that Martin matches Allen as a writer, at least when it comes to the more sincere parts of the script. Where Allen’s intellectualism is inherent and ingrained, Martin’s is self- conscious: he wants us to know that he knows Shakespeare well enough to deliberately misquote him. The jazzy score, too, is often very reminiscent of Allen’s movies.
What’s more, though Woody makes for an unlikely romantic lead, his analysis of relationships is piercing and often painful. L.A. Story’s alternative is a form of whimsy that you have to buy into to enjoy the film. When Harris and Sara become children in a magical garden, the scene could be described as a beautiful depiction of the wondrous innocence of love, or an unforgivably nauseating sentimentality, depending on your tolerance of such things. The strains of Enya – and the knowledge that Martin was married to Victoria Tennant at the time – tipped the balance towards the latter for me, but I’m sure the movie’s fantastical sensibility has its fans.
Let’s come back to Ms Tennant. If L.A. Story is Martin’s stab at aping Woody Allen – as it clearly is – Victoria Tennant is his Diane Keaton; unfortunately, she’s a very poor man’s Diane Keaton. If you’re not British and wonder whether it’s her accent that makes her sound stiff, take it from a Brit: it’s not. She’s just not very good, though the fact that her material largely consists of swearing (is English-accented swearing that funny?) doesn’t help her cause. It’s a shame, because around her, Martin is doing some great work; so are the likes of Richard E. Grant and especially Sarah Jessica Parker, a constantly-spinning ball of flirtatious energy.
My guess is that L.A. Story went largely unappreciated not because of Tennant’s indifferent performance, but because people didn’t like seeing Steve Martin going all clever on them. That’s a problem for the viewer rather than the film, and Martin provides plenty to enjoy whilst he’s simultaneously asserting his maturity and declaring his love for both his wife and his crazy workplace. On the other hand, who in their right mind would plump for this movie if The Jerk was on at the same time?
NOTES: That asterisk isn’t a note: it’s part of her name. Vice versa for the second one, obviously.