Last year, talk-show sycophant Arsenio Hall asked Steve Martin when he felt he had become a star. After offering enough facetious answers to make the question seem ridiculous, Martin finally said that he felt like a star when he realized he could afford to fail—to make a bad movie without wrecking his career. He could have been talking about the movie that he was promoting at the time, My Blue Heaven, a lame farce about a Mafia gangster in a witness relocation program. His new movie, L.A. Story, which he wrote himself, is much funnier. It allows Martin to display his virtuosity as a comic actor—a juggler of silly and suave. But as romantic comedy, the movie amounts to less than the sum of its gags.
The L.A. part of L.A. Story is a treat. The movie offers what must be the most exhaustive compendium of Los Angeles jokes ever assembled. A local mugger pulls a gun and says, “Hi, my name is Bob and I’m your robber.” A traffic light turns green and reads, “UH LIKE WALK.” The Story part of L.A. Story is less inspired. Harris (Martin) works for a TV station as a wacky weatherman. He is attached to a vain, domineering girlfriend named Trudi (Marilu Henner). And true love arrives in the form of an English journalist named Sara (Victoria Ten-
nant), who is writing an article on Los Angeles. Their romance is slow to develop: Harris is seduced by an acrobatic airhead who spells her name “SanDeE^” (Sarah Jessica Parker), while Sara keeps company with her unctuous ex-husband (Richard E. Grant).
As a Californian comedy of manners, L.A. Story is amusing. It satirizes the Los Angeles lifestyle with the authoritative wit of an insider. But as a romance, even an ultra-lite one, it never achieves lift-off. Oddly, there is no real chemistry between Martin and his real-life wife, Tennant. The fable’s narrative hinges on a relationship that Harris establishes with an electronic freeway sign. Like the voice from on high in the baseball fantasy Field of Dreams (1989), the sign sends Harris messages. It is a cute gimmick—at first. But as the comedy lurches into sentimental overdrive, the magic seems forced.
Martin spends most of the movie mocking the artificiality of life in America’s show-business capital. Then, he gives in to its most banal myth—“Romance,” Harris concludes, “really does exist deep in the heart of L.A.” Martin seems to suffer from the same syndrome that used to afflict Woody Allen—the attempt to serve as a self-effacing satirist and the leading man who gets the girl. It is hard to be both, even in L.A.
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