Weekend Film Recommendation: L.A. Story

Kiss-herEver wonder what the result would be if Steve Martin tried to make a Woody Allen movie? You will wonder no longer after watching this week’s film recommendation: 1991′s L.A. Story.

The plot concerns wacky L.A. weatherman Harris Telemacher, who is in a mid-life rut. His extremely high-maintenance girlfriend (Marilu Henner, just perfect) is emotionally distant, his TV job is empty-headed, and something is missing at the heart of his life. But then he gets some mysterious advice from an electronic billboard(!) and wild events of a meteorologic and romantic nature ensue, centered upon a lovely British journalist whom he find irresistible. Meanwhile, L.A. is L.A., and is as much a character as any of the actors in this sweet and funny film.

Martin shines here both as a screenwriter and actor. His script is filled with laughs, including a number of literate in-jokes. It also includes a surprising amount of warmth, which Martin and his then-wife Tennant bring across beautifully as their love develops. Life in L.A. is parodied well, but Martin isn’t as bitter as Woody Allen. The result is more gentle fun-poking than lacerating humor.

This film was an early career success for Sarah Jessica Parker, who is appealing as SanDeE* (Not a typo). People who think that Zoey Deschanel invented the manic pixie dream girl need to see Parker in this film. In the first-rate supporting cast, Patrick Stewart does particularly well as the contemptuous head waiter at L’idiot, Woody Harrelson makes a fine boss/jerk and Richard E. Grant is sympathetic as Tennant’s lonely ex-husband.

But the producers made one TERRIBLE judgement, which is that they cut for running time’s sake the most funny supporting performance in the film: John Lithgow as agent Harry Zell. His scene re-emerged on cable rebroadcasts and the 15th anniversary DVD re-issue, so try if you can to get your hands on those because Lithgow is absolutely gutbusting.

There are moments when the film may strike some viewers as slowly paced or a bit precious, but it always gets back on track comically and dramatically in short order. Hooray for Steve Martin, who worked on the script for a number of years and managed to capture the foibles and virtues of Los Angeles and its denizens in an affectionate and highly entertaining way.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior RBC recommendations.


  1. Anonymous37 says

    The joke about the restaurant that Steve Martin’s character goes to on a date with Sarah Jessica Parker’s character has a great payoff when we finally see the place.

  2. J. Michael Neal says

    Agreed. I love this movie The things Martin writes are very hit and miss though I respect them a lot as a body of work because he’s continually trying something new. The one thing that binds them together, much like Rob Reiner’s work, is a fundamental belief in basic human decency.

    And if you have a half hour to kill, there’s always Martin’s guest appearance on the Muppet Show.


  3. Maynard Handley says

    Damn, Keith, your first movie recommendation ever, I think (apart from Airplane, the Leslie Nielsen version) with which I agree.
    The other tragically underrated Steve Martin movie is Bowfinger.

    • Warren Terra says

      About a hundred recommendations, and you agree with two? You don’t rate Annie Hall? Get Carter? Ghostbusters? My Favorite Year? The Sting? There are a lot of awfully well known and widely popular films on that list …

      • Keith Humphreys says

        OMG: Bullitt? Hoop Dreams? Breaker Morant? M? Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy? All no good apparently…

        • karl says

          No, M is kinda okay. Except for, like, the subtitles and all.

          Seriously folks, I’ve enjoyed most of the the movies on your list (and according to my ‘friends’ I’m very hard to please) — and most of those I’m not crazy about are still interesting and worthwhile picks.

          Job well done.

  4. Jean says

    “I’ll have a half double decaffeinated half-caf, with a twist of lemon.” Or something like that…

  5. James Wimberley says

    The electronic billboard gag gives me an excuse to tout an idea for more creative use of the electronic subtitle screens they now have in opera houses. In pantomime, you could have commentary – “He’s lying!”, or instructions to the audience – “Boo!”. If the panto is Aladdin, you could put some of it in Chinese.

  6. valuethinker says

    The slightly Shakespearian touch of the talking sign is classic. As with ‘Roxanne’ Steve Martin is very aware of his classical antecedents and updates them with great mirth (the tennis fight in Roxanne).

    • Keith Humphreys says

      Of course the Rick Moranis gravedigger scene is an even more obvious Shakespeare link and is very well done.

  7. Anonymous says

    It just hits LA where it hurts on so many levels– driving down to the other end of the block rather than walking, taking 10 minutes to make complicated coffee orders, etc. And the Allen comparison is a good one (although it should be noted that the filmmakers of LA Story are, as far as we know, not dangerous child molesters like Allen is)– it’s the same sort of dissection Allen does to New York City in his best films.