L.A. Story February 28, 2019
Sarah Jessica Parker
Richard E. Grant
1 Hr., 38 Mins.
ne of the first things we see in L.A. Story (1991) is a giant hot dog. It’s floating in the sky, being carried by a helicopter, and collocates with shimmering L.A. locales and the rich. Visually, the movie’s writer and star, Steve Martin, is I think trying to reinvigorate the opening of Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960). In the prologue of that movie, a chopper is transporting a statue of Christ to an unspecified location — as if to
underline how easily faith can be manipulated to one's liking.
The hot dog of L.A. Story inspires spiritually similar ideas, though admittedly my thoughts weren't quite so theologically oriented. I was thinking of the little things that pop up in our lives that might remind us of the futility of existence, and how we live in a world where a giant hot dog can float alongside a nimbus cloud and it wouldn’t altogether seem so of the ordinary. Unless it were flying by itself: then I might call the remaining members of The Flying Burrito Brothers to see if they could help figure out what was going on.
The movie stars Martin as Harris, a TV meteorologist. His segment, which interrupts an otherwise serious news program, is renowned for its silliness. Billed the “Wacky Weatherman,” Harris’ reports are more exertions of comedic energy than total truth. Without knowledge of his personal life, it might appear as though he were enjoying himself. But the job, though having provided him with some notoriety and a steady income, leaves him unsatisfied, given that he’s middle-aged and doing a bit you’d think an up-and-comer would take on out of desperation. When a co-worker randomly brings up Harris’ educational background on air, we can feel the sting of the patronization.
Shortly into L.A. Story, Harris is prompted to reevaluate his life. Around the same time he finds out that his superficial, social-climbing girlfriend Trudi (Marilu Henner) has been cheating on him, he's fired from his job. Part of him is cracked up. But the other is relieved, almost. He doesn’t have much of a reason to sit through boring meals with the wannabe glitterati anymore, and he’s no longer stuck in a job that forces him to work with people who seem as ready to condescend to him as pass down a check. Plus, just before he essentially loses everything, he had met and felt something of a romantic connection with Sara (Victoria Tennant), a British journalist writing about whatever the L.A. lifestyle is, and now he can try his luck. (Even though she’s trying to sort out her relationship with her ex-husband, the Richard E. Grant-portrayed Roland.)
The narrative sounds graver than it is. Think of it less in terms of how you picture a typical Martin vehicle — boingy, almost valorously weird — and more the way you would a prototypical work of fanciful filmmaking. There are riotous gags here, sure. My favorites include one where L.A. denizens literally pull out guns on the freeway to get in the least-trafficked lane, and another that involves a stereotypical bimbo character named Sandee (Sarah Jessica Parker) spelling it like SanDeE* to allow herself to stand apart from other blonde, aspiring public figures. But they don’t come together to make what you might consider an orthodox comedy. In Martin’s writing, and in Mick Jackson’s direction, I saw more in common with the movies of Jean-Pierre Jeunet or, much more loosely, Tim Burton: darkly comic filmmakers who have long-employed a fantastical touch as a way to heighten emotion rather than distract from the drama at hand.
The idea for L.A. Story initially came to Martin around 1984, when he and Tennant, then his wife, first began dating. He worked on the screenplay on and off in the interim. Although Martin has denied that the film is totally biographical, what he has been wont to admit is that the film is personal. “It's really a valentine to romance,” he told the New York Times in 1991. “I tried to make tangible that five minutes or two weeks or three months that you can put your finger on.”
You can sense Martin’s investment in the material. Though his trademark propensity for gags is here, and though comic caprice is typically like a fog, much of the good-natured chaos found in L.A. Story looks like two things: either a reflection of the gleaming, sunny pandemonium of Los Angeles or a façade covering profound vulnerability.
Martin, a great observationalist, skillfully satirizes the frivolity of upper-class L.A. living, though never too harshly. He also reinvigorates a tired romantic trope: that everything sucked before the protagonist ended up with their lobster. It settles for something a little more realistic. L.A. Story advertises a Martin I wish we saw more often: one who shows, in a single film, that being persistently silly and dead serious are not mutually exclusive. A-