Friday, July 27, 2012

L.A. Story


Whenever I imagine what Los Angeles might be like I picture Steve Martin’s version of it in L.A. Story (1991), much like how I used to imagine New York City being like Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) before I actually went there. Obviously, the version of L.A. presented in Martin’s film is a romanticized and stylized take but he certainly seemed to capture the spirit of a certain social strata (white, upper-middle class) that was also touched upon in Robert Altman’s The Player (1992). Like with that film, Martin celebrates and satirizes the city’s culture in a way that only someone who has experienced it first hand can. The result is the West Coast answer to Manhattan and a film that would make a good double bill with Altman’s aforementioned film.

The opening credits play over a montage of L.A. culture albeit with a satirical spin, like four cars that all arrive at a four-way stop and proceed to politely wave each other on only to all go at once and crash into each other; there’s the pedestrian wearing a gas mask (on account of the city’s notorious smog); how everyone seems to be watering their lawn; and the traffic light that reads, “Uh Like Walk” and “Uh Like Don’t Walk.” It sets just the right humorous tone as we get a feel for the kind of laughs the film is going for.

We meet Harris K. Telemacher (Steve Martin), a deeply unhappy man who doesn’t realize it because he is so happy all the time as we are told by his voiceover narration. He’s one of those wacky weathermen you see on local television stations cracking lame jokes and wearing funny outfits despite having a Ph.D. in Arts and Humanities. Regardless, a young executive (Woody Harrelson) tells him, “more wacky less egghead.” Harris has lunch with a circle of superficial friends and meets Sara McDowel (Victoria Tennant), fresh off the plane from England and in town to write an article on the city for the London Times. He’s immediately smitten with her, so much so that he almost forgets about his girlfriend Trudi (Marilu Henner) when leaving the restaurant.

One night, while driving on the freeway, Harris’ car breaks down and an electronic traffic signs begins communicating with him. It offers guidance in the form of a riddle that he must figure out over the course of the film. Sara ends up interviewing him for her article which only intensifies his attraction towards her despite his brief fling with SanDeE (Sarah Jessica Parker), a sexy young woman from the Valley who sold him a pair of pants. Harris finds himself physically attracted to her but intellectually she’s a wasteland. Over the course of the film, Harris must decide whether he should stay involved with the vivacious SanDeE or get involved with the beautiful and brainy Sara.

There has always been a fascinating push/pull in Steve Martin’s career – a desire to be regarded as a serious artist (The Spanish Prisoner) and yet he does wacky comedies (The Jerk) to pay the bills. With L.A. Story, he gets to do both and in many respects it is his magnum opus as the screenplay (which he wrote) ambitiously blends broad humor sight gags with witty dialogue that sometimes references Shakespeare. In the scenes between him and Victoria Tennant (his wife at the time), one gets the feeling that Martin is wearing his heart on his sleeve and that he shares Harris’ hopelessly romantic aspirations. Harris is just trying to find love. When we meet him he’s in a passionless relationship with Trudi that almost seems like a business partnership more than anything else. Then, when Harris meets SanDeE (her name itself is a pretty funny gag) he thinks that maybe he’s found love but soon realizes that they have nothing in common even though the sex is great. However, when Harris meets Sara he knows she’s the real deal as they make an instant connection. Martin does a nice job of playing a guy of substance living in social strata that is devoid of it. With Sara, Harris finally meets someone that he can be himself with and doesn’t have to explain many of the intellectual references he makes. Martin wisely doesn’t try to imitate Woody Allen’s neurotic, nebbish characters and instead he tempers his wacky persona with a more wistful, romantic side, like his scenes with the intelligent freeway sign.

With her cute, little ‘20s flapper-esque hat and quirky personality, Victoria Tennant’s Sara is the Diane Keaton to Martin’s Woody Allen. Like Keaton’s character in Manhattan, Sara speaks her mind and doesn’t act like the people in Harris’ circle of friends, which is one of the things that he finds attractive about her. L.A. Story is also a sober reminder of just how gifted a comedienne Sarah Jessica Parker was before she hit it big with Sex and the City. She brings an endearing goofy charm to her carefree spirit of a character. SanDeE lacks a self-awareness that Harris finds refreshing.

The film sends up several clichés of L.A. culture, like how everyone carries a gun while driving on the freeway; or how everyone is so blasé about a strong earthquake; or the exotic variations of coffee everyone orders – with a lemon twist, of course; or how everyone drives everywhere, even a few feet to a neighbor’s house. None of these gags are very mean but rather good-natured pokes at the silliness of a lot of the city’s cultural practices and the stereotypes that everyone has of the place. Martin isn’t out to critique L.A. with biting satire but rather with affectionate parody.

L.A. Story is beautifully shot by British cinematographer Andrew Dunn (Gosford Park) who captures gorgeous sunrises and sunsets. The night scenes absolutely shimmer while the day scenes have a romantic, soft focus look to them. This all ties into the magic realism vibe that Martin is going for as he presents an idealized vision of L.A., which includes talking electronic freeway signs or how he avoids a traffic jam by riding on the sidewalk and through people’s backyards. Martin does lay it on a bit thick with the Shakespeare references, especially the obvious Hamlet quote complete with Rick Moranis as a British gravedigger but they never take you completely out of the romantic spell that he is trying to cast over the film.

Steve Martin first thought about the project that would become L.A. Story in 1984 when he and Victoria Tennant first became involved romantically, seeing it as love letter to their relationship. One day, he was driving down the freeway and thought about using one of its electronic signs in a film and began writing the screenplay. Martin had felt that the “ugly image” of L.A. had “been done so much, there’s nothing new about it. I wanted it to be L.A. through lovers’ eyes.” A native of the city, he had lived there for 25 years before making the film and was well-versed in its culture and distinctive idiosyncrasies. He wanted to capture the “calm desperation of rushing on and never pausing to ask, ‘What did I do for the last 10 years except figure out how to make a left turn on Santa Monica Boulevard?’”

However, he kept putting it aside because he found the task of writing his first original script on his own rather daunting: “I kept feeling it was too weird, so I’d put it away for a while, and then I would get it out again and work on it again.” After making Roxanne (1987), its success emboldened him to finish his script for L.A. Story. As he worked on the script, Martin decided to reference Shakespeare several times, quoting lines from Richard II, Hamlet, Love’s Labor’s Lost, and King Lear. He started off with only a couple of references and the rest were added later.

L.A. Story marked the second film Martin had made with producer Daniel Melnick (the first being Roxanne), veteran of such cinematic classics as Straw Dogs (1971) and Network (1976), who suggested hiring British director Mick Jackson. Melnick showed Martin a tape of the British television miniseries A Very British Coup to demonstrate the stylish look Jackson could bring to their film. The director was initially hesitant to accept the offer because he wondered what he could contribute to a film about L.A. and assumed that Martin preferred to work with little direction. However, this is exactly what the comedian wanted: an outsider’s perspective and a strong director. Martin soon found that he and Jackson shared a common interest in contemporary art and decided to reference the work of David Hockney throughout L.A. Story. For example, a swimming pool scene referenced his painting “California,” which depicted two figures floating on a raft in a pool.

L.A. Story received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “It isn't thin or superficial; there is an abundance of observation and invention here, and perhaps because the filmmakers know they have so much good material, there's never the feeling that anything is being punched up, or made to carry more than its share.” In his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson wrote, “What saves L.A. Story is its soft-centered sweetness. The movie is a bonbon; it delivers a little sugar jolt. Instead of savaging the Angeleno vacuousness, Martin … embraces the town's space case innocence.” The Globe and Mail’s Rick Groen wrote, “Gracefully, wittily, charmingly, Martin reveals its dark truths while honouring its bright wish.”

However, in his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “The movie is less a narrative than an accumulation of gentle gags about smog, fads, freeways, dress, earthquakes, mating habits and trendy restaurants.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Martin, who supplies the rather doleful narration, certainly wins your empathy, but he spends too much time reining himself in … L.A. Story would have been funnier and more exhilarating if Martin had admitted that, in his wild-and-crazy way, he really belongs there.” USA Today gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and Mike Clark wrote, “L.A. Story is a mass of contradictions: an unexpectedly ambitious comedy that's not ambitious enough, a Steve Martin love poem to wife Victoria Tennant that serves her badly, and an oft-insane Martin script that needs a second creative madman behind the camera.”

Much like the characters in Manhattan, the ones in L.A. Story get into messy relationships but with the exception of Harris spend little to no time agonizing over them like in Woody Allen’s film because they have already got another affair going on the side. Sara offers a refreshing perspective for Harris, which he finds very attractive. For all of the satirical jabs Martin takes at L.A. one gets the impression that he also has a lot of affection for it and this comes through in the budding romance between Harris and Sara. Amid all of the superficiality of the city’s culture that surrounds them they can make a meaningful connection. At times, it feels like he’s making an epic statement about L.A. but the film also adopts a more intimate vibe during the scenes between Harris and Sara. “Why is it that we don’t always recognize the moment when love begins but we always know when it ends?” Harris says late in the film. It is a telling observation with a lot of truth to it. L.A. Story’s message is that there is someone for everyone – even in L.A.


SOURCES

Benenson, Laurie Halpern. “Steve Martin Targets L.A.” The New York Times. February 3, 1991.

Horn, John. “Steve Martin Has Eye for Los Angeles in L.A. Story.” Associated Press. February 5, 1991.

Murphy, Ryan. “Life’s No Joke for Shy Comic Martin.” The Advertiser. February 23, 1991.

Portman, Jamie. “Steve Martin Pens Comic Valentine to Favorite Town.” The Record. February 7, 1991.


Yakir, Dan. “L.A. Story.” Globe and Mail.” February 15, 1991.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Good Morning, Vietnam


I’ve always had a soft spot for Good Morning, Vietnam (1987). It isn’t Robin Williams’ best film or his best performance for that matter but it marked a pivotal moment in his career. Up to that point he had done several comedies built around his manic comedic sensibilities that were mostly commercial failures. Only The World According to Garp (1982) hinted at his capacity for mixing comedy and drama and it also scored both with critics and audiences. With Good Morning, Vietnam, Williams gave it another try, teaming up with director Barry Levinson, hot off the comedy Tin Men (1987) and who wisely surrounded the comedian with a rock solid cast of character actors. The result was a bonafide blockbuster (it was #1 at the box office for 9 weeks!) and a genuine crowd pleaser that received several accolades. For me, Good Morning, Vietnam is a fun, engaging film that lets Williams cut loose and do his thing while also attempting to impart a bittersweet romance and a sobering reminder of the war that the United States was losing.

It is 1965 and Airman Adrian Cronauer (Robin Williams) arrives in Saigon to work as disc jockey for the Armed Forces Radio Service. He’s greeted at the airport by Private First Class Edward Garlick (Forest Whitaker) and right from the get-go Levinson does a nice job of evoking a sense of place by immersing us in the sights and sounds of this exotic city and its inhabitants. Once Cronauer and Garlick arrive at the base we are introduced to a colorful assortment of characters, starting with the strict commanding officers, Lt. Hauk (Bruno Kirby) and Sgt. Major Dickerson (J.T. Walsh). The former considers himself something of a comedian (“Readers Digest is considering publishing two of my jokes.”) but is hopelessly square when it comes to anything remotely funny. The latter is the film’s humorless antagonist who lays down the law with Cronauer early on in the film, shutting up the usually unflappable D.J. through intimidation and actually making him sweat (or is that just the heat?).

Cronauer’s first radio show is a dynamic debut as Williams gets to unleash his crazed stand-up routines with him voicing characters both based on actual people, like Gomer Pyle and Walter Cronkite, and ones that he makes up on the fly. Levinson breaks up the comedian’s whirlwind onslaught with a fantastic collection of period rock music by the likes of the Beach Boys, James Brown, Them, The Supremes and many others that plays over footage of soldiers toiling around Saigon or hanging out at their bases. It is an unorthodox radio show to say the lease as Cronauer mercilessly parodies the United States military and the government with biting political humor that does little to endear him with Dickerson and Hauk, the latter of which reprimands him afterwards.

Of course it wouldn’t be a Barry Levinson film without a few scenes of guys sitting around talking (see Diner and Tin Men) and in Good Morning, Vietnam the place is Jimmy Wah’s, a local G.I. bar (“It’s real homey in an opium kind of way,” Cronauer deadpans upon first entering.) where Cronauer and the other D.J.s hang out. It is rather memorably owned by a man that calls everybody “Earl” and who is obsessed with actor Walter Brennan.

Cronauer finds himself attracted to a young Vietnamese woman named Trinh (Chintara Sukapatana) and becomes a teacher at an English-as-a-second language school in order to get closer to her. The introduction of this setting gives us a little insight into the Vietnamese people as Cronauer begins to interact with Trinh and her family, in particular her brother, Tuan (Tung Thanh Tran). The scene where Cronauer introduces himself to the class is particularly memorable because we see Williams the comedian playing to the hardest room of his career – a group that does not understand English. At first, they are unimpressed and confused but he eventually is able to communicate with them on a basic level. There is a spontaneous feel to these scenes as if what the Vietnamese actors (non-actors?) are saying was unscripted and Williams is simply reacting to whatever they say, eliciting genuine surprise and laughter from the gifted comic. This scene also continues Cronauer’s unorthodox yet effective way of communicating with others as he eschews stuffy text book phrases for common, every day sayings and, of course, curse words.

Director Barry Levinson successfully harnesses the comedian’s wild, manic energy in this film. Williams’ radio monologues (famously adlibbed by the comedian) are the highlights as he cuts loose with his trademark rapid-fire humor (“What’s the difference between the Army and the Cub Scouts? Cub Scouts don’t have heavy artillery.”). He is an actor who needs a strong director to rein him in. His best films are the ones where he collaborated with a director who had their own distinctive vision (Peter Weir, Terry Gilliam and Gus Van Sant) and this one is no different.

Even though Good Morning, Vietnam is essentially a vehicle for Williams, Levinson wisely surrounds him with a strong supporting cast of character actors, like Robert Wuhl, Bruno Kirby and J.T. Walsh. Kirby is excellent as the terminally unfunny and unhip Lt. Hauk. The scene where he temporarily takes over Cronauer’s show with his own brand of comedy is almost painful to watch. There is also an amusing running gag about how no one ever salutes him despite his rank. This film would mark the start of a memorable run of supporting roles in popular comedies like When Harry Met Sally… (1989), The Freshman (1990), and City Slickers (1991).

Walsh proved to be a very credible antagonist to Williams with his sober intensity and gravitas that he brings to the role. Williams is such a force of nature and a larger than life personality that he needs someone who is just as forceful and Walsh does an excellent job as his vindictive superior. Fresh from Oliver Stone’s gritty Vietnam War film Platoon (1986), Forest Whitaker is cast against type as Cronauer’s meek, by-the-book assistant and displays some nice comedic chops in various ways, like the nervous, high-pitched giggle he repeatedly emits upon first meeting Cronauer, or the way he always turns the ignition key when first getting into a jeep with the engine already running.

The first half of Good Morning, Vietnam is the light, entertaining stuff of an anarchic anti-authoritarian comedy as we see Cronauer gleefully breaking all the rules and having fun doing it. He gets into a bit of trouble but nothing major. The second half of the film sees the comedic elements take a back seat in favor of an unrequited romance between Cronauer and Trinh as well as the growing insurgency in Saigon. The tone of the film noticeably darkens when Cronauer narrowly escapes a bomb exploding at Jimmy Wah’s and Levinson doesn’t shy away from depicting the carnage and the ensuing chaos with shots of bloodied victims, both American soldiers and locals, as well as shots of dead bodies lying in the street. It is a shock not only to Cronauer but to us because nothing that came before prepared us for this.

To make matters worse, Cronauer goes on the air and gives his account of what happened without it being approved. Williams does a nice job here, first, in the aftermath of the bombing as he tries to make sense of the carnage, and secondly, when he tries to put on a funny face afterwards on his radio show. His jokes fall flat as the shock of what he saw and experienced sinks in. His defeated facial expression says it all. Mitch Markowitz’s screenplay makes a smooth transition between the two halves of the film by doing it gradually with elements of comedy and drama blending together naturally so that neither one is entirely abandoned in favor of the other. Levinson also shifts the emphasis on locales over the course of the film with most of it set in the army base for the first half and then opening things up in the second half as we see more of Saigon and the surrounding area. The focus also shifts to that of the Vietnamese as we see how Trinh and Tuan live when they take Cronauer to their village. At this point in the film he has gotten tired with being censored and told what to say, what news to report, and what songs he can play. He finds himself spending more time with Tuan and is soon rejected by Trinh, coming to the sobering realization that they never really had a chance to become romantically involved in the first place.

Adrian Cronauer got his start as a radio broadcaster when he helped start the University of Pittsburgh’s campus radio station. By 1962, he was majoring in broadcasting at the American University in Washington, D.C. He found himself eligible for the draft and decided to volunteer for the Air Force with his first choice being flight training. However, he didn’t want to make the kind of time commitment necessary and entered training for broadcasting and media operations. He successfully completed it and was transferred to an Armed Forces Radio station in Greece. He had one year left of his enlistment and was given a change of assignment with the option of either going back home to the United States, where he would work on training films, or broadcast live to American soldiers in either South Korea or South Vietnam. He chose Vietnam.

In 1979, Adrian Cronauer and one of his old military buddies Ben Moses were discussing the success of television shows M*A*S*H and WKRP in Cincinnati. They thought about creating a sitcom that fused the two shows together – a comedy based on U.S. armed forces radio. They wrote a treatment and pitched it to the networks but none of them were interested because Vietnam wasn’t considered very funny at the time. So, they put the treatment away until years later when they decided to change it from a sitcom to a movie of the week and sent it to Robin Williams’ manager.

Williams read the script and loved it. He suggested they make it into a feature film. He said in an interview, “It’s closer to me than anything I’ve ever done. It’s very close to home.” However, he couldn’t find a director to make it into a film. At some point, he met Barry Levinson who read it and liked the challenge of showcasing Williams’ acting abilities with his comedic sensibilities.

To capture Williams’ wild improvisations during the radio sequences Levinson used three cameras running at the same time. The only things scripting for these sequences was a line about cappuccino, an impression of Walter Cronkite, and a line about the Vietnam War being brought to us by the same people who brought us the Korean War – the rest was Williams riffing. As Levinson pointed out in an interview, “It’s one thing to do improvisation, it’s another thing to do period improvisation.” The comedian had done his homework, reading about the country, watching documentaries about the war and talking to people who had been there.

Good Morning, Vietnam was based very loosely on Adrian Cronauer’s experiences in Vietnam. He was not as funny or as wild as Williams, he butted heads with military censors once, and rebelled against the military’s “Polka Hour” programming with Top 40 music like Frank Sinatra. Unlike Williams’ version of Cronauer, the real one’s tour was significantly longer.

Good Morning, Vietnam received mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “Good Morning, Vietnam works as straight comedy and as a Vietnam-era MASH, and even the movie's love story has its own bittersweet integrity.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby praised Williams’ performance: “Mr. Williams's performance, though it's full of uproarious comedy, is the work of an accomplished actor. Good Morning, Vietnam is one man's tour de force.” The Globe and Mail’s Jay Scott wrote, “The first comedy about that war, Good Morning, Vietnam manages to be uproariously funny without ignoring or trivializing the tragedy. It's awkwardly contrived here and there, especially during its recon patrols into Vietnamese life, but for the most part Mitch Markowitz's skeletal script is smart enough to dig in, hunker down and stay out of Robin Williams' line of fire.” However, in his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson felt that the film was “a peculiar hybrid – a Robin Williams concert movie welded clumsily onto the plot from an old Danny Kaye picture. And neither half works.”

The successful run Good Morning, Vietnam enjoyed and the accolades Williams received emboldened him to try several other comedy-drama hybrids, most notably Dead Poets Society (1989), The Fisher King (1991) and Good Will Hunting (1997), which resulted in an Academy Award. Often cited as the first Vietnam War comedy (soon followed by Air America in 1990), it is interesting to note that the film came out the same year as Stanley Kubrick’s nihilistic take on the conflict, Full Metal Jacket but the two films couldn’t be further apart in their approaches. Along with Oliver Stone’s Heaven and Earth (1993), Good Morning, Vietnam attempted to give a human dimension to the Vietnamese people. Unlike many other Vietnam War films of the 1980s, the Vietnamese are not portrayed as some anonymous enemy but real people with their own distinctive personalities. If anything, Levinson’s film personalizes the Vietnam War and questions, in its own way, what exactly the U.S. was doing there in the first place while delivering an entertaining story as well.


SOURCES

Hawthorn, Tom. “Voice of Vietnam Adjusted by Hollywood.” Globe and Mail. February 26, 1988.

Reese, Michael. “Radio was the Only Thing the GI’s Had.” Newsweek. January 4, 1988.

Scott, Jay. “Inventiveness That’s Boundless: Williams Finds Freedom in Vietnam.” Globe and Mail. December 12, 1987.


Zekas, Rita. “No Radio Work in Robin Williams’ Future.” Toronto Star. January 12, 1988.