'L.A. Story' amuses when it's not overly sentimental

February 08, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Anybody who's ever copped a whiff of the zany vapors of the city that takes angels as its namesake will get a giggle out of Steve Martin's slight but amusing "L.A. Story."

Civilization out there is just like it is here, except that it's completely different; and Martin's screenplay and his own rubbery brilliance go quite a distance in capturing the ways in which Los Angeles softens the brain, weakens the will and turns sane men into vegetarians, the process of succulent seduction by which, just when you think you get it, it's got you. But when the movie abandons its Zeitgeist of gentle satire and becomes a more conventional, albeit whimsical, love story it also becomes less interesting.

Martin, who wrote the screenplay for himself and his wife and who is directed by Mick Jackson, casts himself as Harris Telemacher, a wacky TV weatherman with a secretly serious and sensitive soul. As he glides through L.A. culture, so sunk into its radiant hypocrisies and self-apparent delusions, he's completely oblivious. It has leached and murdered his inner life; his soul is on hold, his brain mulched in the La Brea tar pits; his obtuseness is the joke:

"I hate kissing people I hardly know," he proclaims, "and I'm not going to do it anymore!" Then the film jumps to him sucking ear with a bunch of strangers in a posh, pretentious restaurant, oozing smarm from ever single distended, loathsome pore.

Quickly Martin and director Jackson sketch types, grotesques out of Georg Grosz or Nathaneal West (but this is no "Day of the Locust"): His girlfriend, Marilu Henner, is crass, selfish and predatory; a sales girl (Sara Jessica Parker) has a head that seems filled with helium and when she walks, her own inner cheerful rhythms require that she spin and pirouette; a British friend seems wilted in the sunlight; Martin's agent cheats him and, with his girlfriend, on him; his station manager fires him. Martin sums himself up succinctly: "I'm so busy being happy I haven't figured out why I'm unhappy."

And they skewer pretensions. To get a reservation at a fancy restaurant (L'Idiot), he has to meet the maitre d' in his bank and demonstrate his financial stability; he is told that he can only qualify for the chicken, not the beef. A trip on the freeway of course involves the casual ritual gunplay; a trip next door involves driving.

But the movie seems to veer into sentimentality, as it ultimately comes to chronicle Martin's courtship with a visiting British journalist (Victoria Tenant, who is his real-life wife). I'm happy Mr. and Mrs. Martin got to make a movie together; but I still don't get it.

Poor Tennant comes across on screen as steely, brittle and ambitious; she's a cross between Julie Andrews and Maggie Thatcher, who's just used the Falkland Islands as dental floss; and her husband's meek attempts to "humanize" her don't quite work. OK, so she plays "Doo-wah-diddy" on the tuba over the phone to her mother in England.

It helps even less that Martin yields so utterly to whimsy that his movie lurches into the no-laugh's land of Cute. His mentor in this courtship is a Los Angeles freeway traffic sign, that says things like "Kiss her, you fool" in blinking lights and issues cryptic riddles to help him through the romance.

Martin is also showing off his supposed erudition wildly and to no effect. At one point, for reasons only he himself and possibly Jackson can divine, he drags poor Rick Moranis in to do a lengthy and laughless parody of the graveyard scene in "Hamlet." Take it from me, Mel Gibson has nothing to worry about.

And neither does L.A. That bizarre city has been so brilliantly ravaged by the industry it invented -- in "The Loved One," or "Sunset Boulevard" or "Welcome to L.A." or "The Long Goodbye" or "Chinatown" -- that Martin was up against a mighty tradition. This is how it worked out: Tradition 1, Martin 0.

'L.A. Story'

Starring Steve Martin and Victoria Tennant.

Directed by Mick Jackson.

Released by Tri-Star.



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