Steve Martin is like the Gandalf the White of comedy. His terrible (great?) puns and spot-on clever writing drove great comedy movies like The Three Amigos and The Jerk. Not to mention his writing and acting work on classic Saturday Night Live. Unfortunately, one of his best works is also his least known.
As Los Angeles was transitioning into the 90’s, Steve Martin was busy writing something of a magnum opus, L.A. Story. It's the tale of a wacky weather man who falls in love with a British journalist in the magical Shakespearean city of Los Angeles. L.A. story is epic, sophisticated and silly, delivers some great social commentary, and has a wonderful romantic love story with a talking highway sign as one of its main characters. Steve Martin and director Mick Jackson find a unique balance between humor and drama many films have never achieved so well.
So, what makes it work?
Nothing wasted (Dialogue and visuals)
The important part of any movie, comedies in particular, is the balance between the visual and the written. It should feel like a well choreographed dance between the two where each partner never steps on the other's toes yet can stand strong on their own for small amounts of time. Every single moment of this film is used to its fullest. Not only are there jokes tucked in every corner of the film, the humor runs the gamut, from vaudevillian schtick (a hidden asbestos warning behind the map revealed during a wacky weather segment) to the bleak (robbers politely waiting in line for patrons at the local ATM) to the absurd (a slo-mo setting on the shower).
At every moment in this film, Steve Martin is giving the audience something interesting to digest. He isn’t even afraid to have other characters cringe or awkwardly chuckle at his character’s bad jokes. One of the best moments in the film is when Steve Martin’s character, Harris, tries to make a reservation at an upscale French restaurant called L’idiot. Unfortunately, reservations at this restaurant require a comprehensive assessment of financial stability. Martin, the restaurant owner, the head chef and his accountant meet at a bank to review his finances, social life, and living habits to decide what he and his girlfriend may order if they were to eat there. It also has a superb cameo by Patrick Stewart as the banker with an amazing French accent.
A Montage (Setting the silly stage)
The movie opens not with the characters but with something bigger and substantially more absurd, Los Angeles. This is done with a superbly edited montage showing all the bizarre and unique things L.A. has to offer.
This sets the stage for L.A. not just as a location but as a character. It has its own personality but also a kind of natural magical force as well. This montage helps establish the slightly fantastical yet strangely accurate rules for the movie and let's the audience know anything can happen and they shouldn't be shocked because It's just L.A.
Harris K. Telemacher (and his unhappy life of happy distractions)
"My name is Harris K. Telemacher and I've had 7 heart attacks, all imagined." We are introduced to Harris through narration in a stationary bike riding park as he begins to tell his tale that he swears is all true.
The first scene where we get introduced to his life is when he is stuck in daily L.A. traffic on the way to work. After hearing a radio news report about how bad the traffic is, he then proceeds to take a series of silly shortcuts through backyards, rivers, side streets, stairs, and over mountains to arrive at work precisely on time.
It’s a great introduction but it leads us to his key flaw. He is a man trapped in a series of happy distractions. A man who, despite how difficult his life is, will always be silly and find the fun and happy side of life, for better or worse.
In his case he is completely unaware of how unhappy he actually is. His job as a wacky weatherman gains him no respect from his peers or boss. He tolerates a princess of a girlfriend. He spends most of his day making light of the people and things around him. He roller skates around museums and films it simply because he is bored.
On the surface he thinks he is happy but he really isn’t, and like most people in life he is looking for something to ground him. In his case, that something is Love.
Then came a sign (Literally)
His car unexpectedly breaks down on the freeway on his way home from a party. At this point a freeway condition sign begins to talk to him and only him (It appears nobody else can see what the sign is saying).
It says this:
The sign asks "Are you ok?" Harris takes this as meaning at the current moment with his car trouble, but the sign is speaking in broader terms, meaning in his life. Harris doesn’t realize this yet. The sign and he begin to have a conversation.
The sign tells him two things. First, a message: “The weather will change your life twice.” Then it gives him a riddle to solve: "You will know what to do when you unscramble how daddy is doing." Harris is sent on his way both amused and confused. He understands that he must do something but at that point is completely unaware.
This moment is emblematic of the film's ambitions to deconstruct the narrative. In most plays or films a character will receive a metaphorical or symbolic sign, something that shows them the path or wakens them to a call to action. In this movie it’s literally a sign telling the main character what to do. It’s presented with such a cute and playful conversation too. Although the movie never comes out and says it, the sign is more like a guardian angel who, if it helps Harris (the poor lost soul), will get his wings. In this case his “wings” are its voice. It believes it was reincarnated from a bag pipe. The sign IS a character with its own personality and problems that, by the end of the film, has a full arch as well.
Harris has 3 girls that play a large part in his love life throughout the movie. The first is his girlfriend Trudi who is a typical L.A. princess. She's more focused on fashion and drama than on Harris. The second is Sandy the rebound girl much too young for him and who spells her name like this:
The last is Sara. Sara comes into his life through a lunch meeting of mutual friends. She is a British journalist here to write an article about the interesting characters that populate Los Angeles. Sara isn't an outsider by accent only - her honest and friendly nature is played in sharp contrast to the phoniness and layers of facade that define the L.A. social circles of the film.
Unfortunately, Sara’s ex-husband Rolland is trying to rekindle their old relationship. From a writing stand point, the dynamic set up here is great. In most cases the boy would have to lose the bad girl (Trudi) and get with the good girl (Sara) but in a funnier and more realistic case Harris goes for a rebound girl (Sandy) and creates an interesting love quadrangle of confusion involving the two girls (Sandy and Sara) and the ex-husband (Rolland). Although the movie is highly fantastical, this kind of awkwardness feels more like relationships in real life and the audience can relate to their feelings as they watch them all fumble through it.
A Shakespearean framework
L.A. itself serves as an absurdist playground. With so much unhinged nuttiness, the film needs an anchor and it finds one in Shakespeare, a broad concept the film adopts both for structure and for humor. It seems as if Steve wanted to create this version of L.A. where Shakespeare could have lived and existed as a fun tribute to his then wife, British actress Victoria Tennant, who plays the love interest Sara. But he takes it further by even having Shakespeare buried in a graveyard in L.A.
There is a scene where the characters encounter a gravedigger played by Rick Moranis in which they literally reenact a scene from Hamlet complete with Harris holding the skull of an old magician he once knew. These nods to Shakespeare bring an interesting feeling to the movie. It’s almost as if Steve Martin is saying only Shakespeare could concoct a city as unique, whimsical, stupid, and full of crazy people as Los Angeles.
The inner and outer child
Something Steve Martin has always used in his humor is the idea that you're never too old to be young. It’s a child-like awe and study of the world around him that he translates into fun visual and written humor. The world around you is as fun and magical as you want it to be. The movie isn’t afraid to call this idea out, but it’s this child-like regression that ultimately brings these two characters together and then grow.
It reflects in something Sara says early in the film when she and Harris first meet. “I keep thinking I’m an adult, but I’m not.” This is visually represented later when the two characters physically become children as they walk through a garden on their first date together. It's like a physical manifestation of that feeling of being both scared and intrigued by the mystical powers of love when you are young.
There is a great line in the movie that Harris says to himself about love in the third act as well. He says, “Why is it we never recognize the moment love begins, but we always know the moment it ends?” This plays with the idea that people suddenly fall in love like children ready to play and have fun but they don't realize it because there are so many other distractions.
When it’s over they leave relationships like battle-hardened adults devoid of any fun or play and it's clear the game is over. One of the movie’s underlying themes is about growing up. When you stop distracting yourself with play and grow up you’ll find the love you are looking for, but the movie reminds you it doesn’t mean you have to lose the humor and fun.
Enya kills it. (Which is almost unheard of before Lord of the Rings.)
A large portion of the movie’s soundtrack was written by Enya and it’s amazing. It’s what allows the truly dramatic parts of the movie to feel really dramatic and help separate them from the silly parts. In fact I would say it’s the glue that keeps the written jokes and visual beauty truly united into one amazing movie.
What doesn’t work
There isn’t a lot truly wrong with this movie. If anything, it’s a little too personal of a movie. It can be difficult to relate to Steve Martin’s character because he is so much Steve Martin. But that could be said about most of his characters really.
The movie is also a little bit dated. It was written about a very specific time in L.A. That awkward transition from the 80s to the 90s. The bad hair, the strange clothing, and the attitude of the Hollywood mentality are all preserved in amber, for better or for worse. The cringe-worthy aesthetic of the film could well have been intentional, as if Steven Martin was saying “I’m putting this one in the record books so you can all see how stupid you look decades from now!”