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.