“Let your mind go and your body will follow.”
Steve Martin is on a roll lately. Anyone who has seen his newest comedy/mystery series (at this point, who hasn’t), Only Murders in the Building knows why the legendary comedian is enjoying what will be seen as another glorious highlight in an already-impressive career. The series, co-starring Martin Short and Selena Gomez, is a twisty whodunnit that capitalizes on the current podcast phenomena while adding a dose of New York nostalgia and some of the most priceless banter heard on any series this year.
The show is the creation of Martin himself, who conceived of the idea years earlier and refused to let it go. It’s the latest in an incredible run of projects the actor has crafted and spun over the many years he’s been entertaining audiences. Beginning with his breakout role in The Jerk to an incredible string of comedy gems including Three Amigos!, The Man with Two Brains, Roxanne and Bowfinger. None of them, however, captured the heart, laughter and surreal quality of Martin’s 1991 effort, L.A. Story.
Set in the city of angels, L.A. Story stars Martin as Harris, a Los Angeles weatherman trying to re-evaluate his life after a break up with a style-conscious girlfriend (Marilu Henner). Bolstered by a message he mysteriously receives from a traffic sign on a busy freeway, Harris embarks on a journey to discover true happiness and “the one.” Along the way, he finds himself dating a free-spirited 20-something (Sarah Jessica Parker) and falling for a visiting British journalist (Victoria Tennant).
In celebration of L.A. Story’s Blu-ray debut, I thought I’d take a look at the various elements which makes this one of the greatest films of the decade.
While the score for L.A. Story is as lively and soaring as the film itself, there are three prominent songs which help its essence come through. The first is French singer/songwriter Charles Trenet’s “La Mer,” which lends a dreaminess to the film’s opening credits sequence featuring various L.A. denizens going about thier unconventional daily routines. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Manfred Mann’s hit “Doo Wah Diddy” and the timelessness it gives the film. First heard on a trombone courtesy of Sarah (Tennant), the song then morphs into a score by the film’s composer, Peter Melnick, which shows the hidden beauty of an L.A. at nighttime. Finally, it seems a bit random that Martin’s film should end with a rendition of “Amazing Grace” via bagpipes (courtesy of The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards) but listening to it, there couldn’t have been a more glorious end to such a unique film.
Whether it was the brilliance of the script or Martin’s likability within the industry, it’s amazing how many big name celebrities, many of whom were at the height of their popularity, agreed to cameo in L.A. Story. Highlights include Woody Harrelson as Harris’s neon shorts wearing station manager, Patrick Stewart as the maniacally snobbish maitre’d of an upscale restaurant and Rick Moranis as a cockney gravedigger. Besides them there’s Chevy Chase, Terry Jones, George Plimpton, Paula Abdul and even Iman. Celebrity cameos in feature films certainly weren’t new when the film was made and they’ve only grown more commonplace in the years since. However, so rarely have this many big names been cast as in a way that helps to give a sort of alternate universe vision to Los Angeles.
While so much of L.A. Story is heightened, one aspect which needed very little are the film’s locations. Rather than the traditional parade of stars on the walk of fame or shots of studio lots, the movie opts for some of the city’s landmarks which show how culturally varied the landscape is when it comes to its structures. The L.A. County Museum of Art is a great setting for Harris’s rollerskating escapades, while the Venice Beach boardwalk has an almost Fellini-like quality in the way it’s shot. The famed Hollywood Forever Cemetery lends itself to one of the movie’s most touching and hilarious scenes and two distinct eateries, Tail of the Pup hot dog stand and the Hard Rock Café, both give off the different kinds of experiences to be had in the city. Yet it’s the use of the iconic Ambassador Hotel and the way it was able to be transformed to accommodate many of L.A. Story’s key scenes which is perhaps a testament to the building almost as much as it is to the city itself.
Even though Martin’s scripts have always been imaginative, he’s never quite strayed so far off the ground than he does in L.A. Story. The film features so many larger-than-life moments mixed with those deep in magical realism, all of which comment on the city in one way or another. One of the movie’s most famous set pieces shows Harris at brunch with friends just as an earthquake takes place, causing no one except Sarah to bat an eye while another shows two lines at opposite ends of an ATM- one for patrons and another for robbers. Nothing reaches the magical heights of the scenes featuring Harris communicating with the highway billboard, which forcibly strands him with car trouble and starts imparting clues on what he must do to change his life. Seeing Harris come alive in these scenes as he starts to chase after the kind of existence he desires as a result of these messages are some of the most energetic and inspiring moments in the entire film.
With the exception of a couple of instances, the presence of Martin on a movie poster always guarantees a collection of laughs which unmistakably come from the mind of one of the funniest men alive. L.A. Story is full of poetry, philosophy and romance, but Martin also makes sure to balance it all with a steady flow of humor, which help to tell the story almost as much as any plot turn. A dinner party Harris and Sarah go to is made hysterical thanks to the main speaker’s mundane story, while his reading of a piece of art is undoubtedly the movie’s biggest laugh thanks to the reveal. The film’s iconic brunch scene is populated by a wacky assortment of characters, such as a woman who is studying the art of conversation. “Oh, you’re taking a class in conversation,” Harris asks. “Yes,” is her lone reply. Harris’s museum escapades, his morning drive, his penchant for answering his phone as if he were an answering machine; it all makes for the kind of comedy that is purely Martin.
It’s in the screenplay and the words he’s given Harris and the women surrounding him where Martin’s soulfulness truly shows itself. Of course there are the funny one-liners. “Some of these houses are over 20 years old,” he exclaims as he shows Sarah around a neighborhood. Other times Martin maintains a mix of the playful and earnest as he has Harris slightly let down his guard. “Ordinarily, I don’t like to be around interesting people because it means I have to be interesting too,” Harris tells Sarah. “Are you saying I’m interesting,” she asks. “All I’m saying is that, when I’m around you, I find myself showing off, which is the idiot’s version of being interesting,” he admits. But it’s when the script delves into Harris’s romantic, slightly vulnerable side where it truly surprises and shines. “Forget for this moment the smog and the cars and the restaurant and the skating and remember only this: A kiss may not be the truth, but it is what we wish were true.”
In case you haven’t figured it out by now, L.A. Story is a love story in a couple of ways. There’s a great whimsical quality that’s established right from the beginning which carries the audience all the way through. The romanticized view of Los Angeles is exaggerated for comic effect, but also paints that world as a magical realm where the rules of “the real world” don’t apply, but where everyone is still searching for that same human connection. It’s the need and yearning for that connection which drives the actual love story of the film. While it’s nothing new seeing a comedy where a female protagonist is looking for love, there’s something certainly novel about watching someone like Harris navigate the slings and arrows of romance and in the process, question the way he’s lived his life up to that point. Even if it doesn’t feature a romance for the ages, it speaks to so many aspects which make the quest for love both eternally universal and wholly unique.
L.A. Story is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Lionsgate.