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.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

11 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: L.A. Story”

  1. 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. 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. 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.

    1. 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 …

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

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

  5. 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. 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).

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

  7. 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.

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