The Lonely Guy (1984), starring Steve Martin and Charles Grodin, is part of a popular subgenre of the romantic comedy with sad sack protagonists unlucky in and often looking for love such as Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) and Albert Brooks’ Modern Romance (1981) with the female equivalent in movies like Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) and Someone Like You (2001). These movies often feature socially awkward protagonists fumbling their way through unsuccessful relationships. The Lonely Guy fancies itself as a grandiose cinematic statement on the subgenre right down to the mock-epic-style opening that playfully references 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
Larry Hubbard (Martin) is a successful greeting card writer living in New York City. He comes home one day to find his girlfriend in bed with another man and seems completely oblivious to it all in an amusing bit where he carries on with his daily routine as if nothing is wrong. Kicked to curb, Larry wanders the streets until he sits on a park bench and meets experienced “lonely guy” Warren Evans (Grodin) whose girlfriend just left him for a guy robbing her apartment (“It’s probably for the best. She was really starting to let herself go,” he deadpans.).
Warren gives Larry a lot of helpful advice, like avoiding wealthy neighborhoods to live in because they have high crime rates (he even sees a man thrown off a building and another guy shot on the sidewalk in front of him!). These early scenes between Steve Martin and Charles Grodin are among the strongest of the movie as the former’s optimism clashes hilariously with the latter’s pessimism.
Larry soon discovers that there are all kinds of other lonely, single guys like him out there and they need advice like he did and so he decides to write a book entitled, A Guide for the Lonely Guy. It becomes hugely successful and Larry finds himself not so lonely any more. He even tries to pick up a woman at a bar by telling her that he’s looking for a real relationship while she admits that she just wants to have sex. As if on cue, Warren shows up and asks Larry, “Ever think about getting a dog?”
This scene demonstrates how The Lonely Guy deftly juggles satire with keen observations on human behavior. Everything is heightened for comedic effect reminiscent of the Zucker Abrams Zucker movies only not quite as zany. In some respects, this movie, with its self-reflexive voiceover narration and breaking of the fourth wall, feels like a warm-up for Martin’s comedic opus L.A. Story (1991), which manages to balance satire with poignant observations about relationships much more successfully.
Larry meets Iris (Judith Ivey), an attractive woman he keeps running into but is unable to make it work because the timing isn’t right. They have an on-again-off-again relationship that plays out over the course of the movie.
Martin manages to effortlessly tread a fine comedic line between hapless doormat and hopeless romantic. The problem with a lot of romantic comedies is that they’re populated by impossibly good-looking people that would never have a problem finding love and while he is a handsome guy Martin is able to convey the awkwardness of someone lacking confidence – that makes him a believable lonely guy.
Grodin plays Warren as the ultimate dweeb who refers to his plants as “guys.” In the 1980s, he excelled at playing uptight, nebbish characters (Midnight Run) and this is one of the best takes on this type. In a movie with many outrageous gags and set pieces, he wisely underplays, delivering a less is more performance that is quite funny. The best scenes in the movie are between him and Martin. They play well off each other and it’s a shame they didn’t do more movies together.
Neil Simon adapted Bruce Jay Friedman’s book, The Lonely Guy’s Book of Life and then Jay Friedman and Stan Daniels, known for their work on television sitcoms like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi, wrote the screenplay. The project was a challenging change of pace for them as the latter said, “We were used to writing about real people and real problems – in other words, just straightforward realistic comedy. The Lonely Guy is a stylized way of getting at reality.”
Principal photography began in spring of 1983 at Universal Studios’ famous New York City backlot on Stage 28 with Larry and Warren’s apartments built on the same soundstage. Incredibly, a life-sized scale replica of the Manhattan Bridge was constructed, standing eight feet in the air and was 44-feet wide, taking four weeks to build. In addition, actual location shooting took place in Los Angeles and for three weeks in New York.
The Lonely Guy was savaged by critics with Roger Ebert giving it one-and-a-half out of four stars and writing, “The Lonely Guy is the kind of movie that seems to have been made to play in empty theaters on overcast January afternoons.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Whenever the film tries for sprightliness, it stumbles. When it gives in to the basic misery of Larry and his situation, though, it begins to make some sort of morose comic sense.” Pauline Kael felt that is had “some wonderful gags and a lot of other good ideas for gags, but it was directed by Arthur Hiller, who is the opposite of a perfectionist, and it makes you feel as if you were watching television.” The Washington Post’s Gary Arnold wrote, “Nevertheless, despite the flailing around, the picture fitfully accumulates a handful of modest highlights and silly brainstorms. They may seem sufficient to justify the trouble, especially if you extend Martin & Co. the courtesy of not expecting a classic.” Even Martin wasn’t too crazy with the end result. He didn’t like Larry and felt that as a character he was “too weak. I realized I played too nebbishy. That’s what was written, but it’s not a character I especially want to play anymore.”
Even though the situations Larry finds himself in are heightened for comedic effect, The Lonely Guy does capture the single guy mindset quite well – the desperation and the rationalization that a lot of men experience as they try to find that special someone. Ultimately, the movie suggests that you have to be willing to put yourself out there if you want to meet someone and that takes courage as you run the risk of being rejected. There’s something to be said about making an attempt and the movie champions this approach albeit in a satirical way. If The Lonely Guy is remembered at all its as a commercial and critical failure that not even its star liked but I think he, Kael and other film critics have been too hard on this trifle of a movie that is funny and features a stand-out performance by Charles Grodin.
Pollock, Dale. “Steve Martin: A Wild and Serious Guy.” Los Angeles Times. September 16, 1984.
The Lonely Guy Production Notes. 1984.