And now here's Judge Brendan Babish with his waaaaaaaaacky review of L.A. Story.
Our review of L.A. Story, published October 27th, 1999, is also available.
Something funny is happening in L.A.
In 1991, Steve Martin wrote and starred in L.A. Story a "wacky" comedy about the absurdity of living in Los Angeles in the '90s. Now Lionsgate is releasing a 15th Anniversary edition, which begs the question: so many years later, are these jokes still relevant?
Facts of the Case
Harris K. Telemacker (Steve Martin, The Pink Panther) is a weatherman for a local Los Angeles TV station. Though Harris is a witty and hyper-aware intellectual, he has surrounded himself with the eccentric and vacuous denizens that inhabit L.A. Though he feels happy on a day-to-day basis, it is only after he meets Sara (Victoria Tennant, Flowers in the Attic), a flighty, yet down-to-Earth Brit, that he realizes how empty his life is. Harris attempts to woo the Sara, but is stymied by her lingering affection for her ex-husband Roland (Richard E. Grant, Withnail & I) and his own carnal desire for SanDeE* (Sarah Jessica Parker, Sex and the City), a ditzy hotbody. Despite these roadblocks to their romance, there is a sentient Los Angeles freeway sign that provides Harris with clues that might just be the key to unlocking Sara's heart.
Making fun of Los Angeles is not as easy as one would think. Or rather, it is easy, there are countless targets, but the difficulty is making fun of the city in any sort of lasting and substantive way. You see, Los Angeles is one of the trendiest cities in America, and for this it receives much deserved derision. But trends change so rapidly that any humorous commentaries on the Los Angeles lifestyle often become irrelevant within a few years. A prime example is the film Clueless, which was hilarious and insightful upon its release, is merely amusing today, and will probably be indecipherable to anyone who was born in the 21st century. This is why it is so surprising that L.A. Story, a movie which is pretty much a loose amalgamation of jokes about the absurdity of Los Angeles, has managed to hold up so well 15 years after its release.
This is almost entirely due to the consistently charming and intelligent script by the movie's star, Steve Martin. As evidenced by last year's Shopgirl (and belied by this year's The Pink Panther), Martin is an extremely talented screenwriter. While the story for L.A. Story is thin, and seems to be contrived as an excuse for a series of gags, the gags themselves are consistently hilarious. Some of my favorites include: Harris's labyrinthine efforts to get a table at Lidio's, a trendy L.A. restaurant; Harris's deconstruction of an abstract painting as if it were tawdry and obscene; and his entire relationship with the airhead SanDeE*. With the possible exception of Sydney Pollack's fling in Husbands and Wives, I don't think the relationship between a middle-aged man and a mindless tart has ever been portrayed better on screen.
While the stereotypical L.A. hippie-ditz of the early '90s has been replaced by the L.A. heiress-ditz (best exemplified by Paris Hilton) in this century, Sarah Jessica Parker's portrayal of the young, supple, and stupid SanDeE* is still probably her greatest screen performance. This is the role that first got her noticed, and it is unfortunate she has never returned to any broad comedy like this since, because she obviously has a talent that is wasted in idiotic films like If Lucy Fell and Failure To Launch.
It is worth noting that not all of the gags in L.A. Story work. Some fail because they are simply too absurd, others because they are dated. Bits like the oil change being administered by a pit crew are too absurd even for this free form comedy. Jokes like the rapping waiter at Lidio's have no corollary with modern Los Angeles, and are no longer amusing. And the shoot-out on the L.A. freeway manages to be both a dated reference, and simply too outlandish to be funny.
Still, the charms of L.A. Story far outweigh its demerits. And as a bonus, for all you English majors, Martin implants numerous references to Shakespeare throughout the film. Harris quotes the Bard on two different occasions, and the plot channels several of his works, including Hamlet, A Midsummer's Night Dream, and The Tempest. One of Martin's biggest strengths as a writer is his ability to implant bits of esoteric, highfalutin drama into moments of absurd, highly accessibly comedy. While L.A. Story is unabashedly silly, it displays enough wisdom and depth in its humor to ensure a long shelf life in the American consciousness.
Lionsgate has done a commendable job putting together this special edition DVD. The sweetest plum, by far, are the 16 deleted scenes. Many are less than 30 seconds long, and contain only one (usually unfunny) joke. However, several contain disregarded subplots, most notably John Lithgow's (Kinsey) extended cameo as Harry Zell, Harris's power agent. His scenes are hilarious, and constitute some of the best deleted scenes I have seen excised from a comedy. Additionally, there is a less amusing subplot featuring Scott Bakula (Quantum Leap) as a washed-up boxer. There is also a hilarious montage of mock television commercials Harris appears in to make money after he was fired from his weatherman gig.
The other intriguing extra is the interactive map of L.A., which provides audio and visual introductions to many of the sets used in the film. This is useful for anyone who has any interest in seeing these odd landmarks in the greater context of this odd city.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One of the few knocks against L.A. Story could be its lack of a strong plot. Harris's pursuit of Sara engenders scant interest and there is little to endear us to their romantic plights. To be more accurate, L.A. Story is a series of hilarious set pieces strung together around a flimsy romance subplot. This is the similar to the criticism that is often levied against The Big Lebowski, the best comedy of the 1990s. While L.A. Story may not be in the same class as Lebowski (but what is?), it is still one of the most insightful and enjoying comedies Hollywood produced that decade.
L.A. Story is one of those breezy comedies that is funny throughout and never injects awkward drama in an ill-fated attempt to add depth. All you're going to get is a lot of laughs, which should be good enough for most people.
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Scales of Justice
• "The Story of L.A. Story" Featurette
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