Appellate Judge Dave Ryan was born a poor black child...
You mean I'm gonna stay this color?
With a career spanning nearly 40 years, Steve Martin has become one of America's most beloved entertainers. From his "wild and crazy guy" shtick of the Seventies to his current run as cinematic leading man, Martin has put together an impressive comedic and dramatic resume. Universal has assembled three of Martin's earliest films in this new single-case, two-disc package, entitled The Wild and Crazy Comedy Collection. There's nothing new here; the release is pretty bare-boned. But three good films at this price is nothing to sneeze at.
Facts of the Case
Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid
The Lonely Guy
These films are three of the first five features that starred Martin (the other two were Pennies From Heaven and The Man With Two Brains), and are a pretty good representative cross-section of Martin's full body of work. All three are worthwhile films that remain entertaining today. But they're three very different films.
The Jerk remains the quintessential Steve Martin film. The film pairs Martin with director/writer Carl Reiner—Martin had worked with Carl's son, Rob "Meathead" Reiner, on the Smothers Brothers' show in the late '60s. Reiner's comedic sensibilities (which are similar to those of his former partner Mel Brooks, but with more subtlety) mesh well with Martin's abilities. A good portion of the film is based on elements of Martin's stand-up act, too. The result is a film that is uniquely suited to Martin—indeed, it's impossible to see anyone else playing the role.
Although it's closing in on being 30 years old, The Jerk doesn't feel dated at all. It is, however, profoundly silly. If you like your comedy intellectual and nuanced, don't bother watching. If you still are in touch with your inner eight-year-old, though, you'll be fine. Martin dances through the film with the giddy idiocy that was his calling card back then. (Younger fans who only know the more serious and reserved Martin of today might be in for a surprise.) Bernadette Peters, better known as a stage actress, is surprisingly good at holding her own with Martin. At the time, it seemed as if the Martin/Peters pairing was going to be a recurring one; that she would be Drew Barrymore to his Adam Sandler. But alas, it wasn't meant to be—the two would not be paired again after the unsuccessful Pennies From Heaven.
The Jerk is all by itself on Disc One of this two-disc set. For all intents and purposes, Disc One is naught but The Jerk: 26th Anniversary Edition in a new package. The same relatively useless extras are still there (although I think I liked the ukulele lesson a little better than Judge Cullum did), and it's almost certainly the same 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. The transfer is fine; it does have some grain to it, and definitely looks like an older film. I didn't notice the hiss Justice Brett heard on the 5.1 surround audio track—maybe it's been fixed. But I do agree with him that the sound is competent but underwhelming.
We're still waiting for a definitive version of The Jerk on DVD, but this is a passable alternative for now. The film is a must-see for Martin fans; this set isn't a bad option for ownership. But just to reiterate: this is a very silly movie. Be warned.
Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid is a whole 'nother kettle of fish. Again, the hand of Carl Reiner is at work both behind and in front of the camera here. The film is ostensibly a parody of film noir, but it really isn't one. Instead, it's a decent noir film that happens to be funny. Unlike a true parody, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid doesn't really spoof and mock the conventions of the genre. Indeed, it follows them to a T. It's got a lot of slapsticky humor in it, but it also has enough mystery in the plot to keep you interested.
The main claim to fame of this film, however, is its seamless integration of real footage from films noir with its narrative. The filmmakers managed to get virtually every big star from the noir era into this film. And it's truly seamless—the classic film stars are true characters in this story. For example, Humphrey Bogart (inserted via clips from The Big Sleep, among other films) is Reardon's mentor/occasional assistant Marlowe; he does some side investigation for Reardon that advances the plot. Classic noir buffs will be in hog heaven trying to figure out which films were used for the intercuts. (The films used are listed in the credits.) It's an impressive Who's Who of Noir Cinema, too—besides Bogie, we get to see Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, Cary Grant, Vincent Price, James Cagney, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Veronica Lake, Ingrid Bergman, Burt Lancaster, Charles Laughton, Ray Milland, Edward Arnold, Fred MacMurray, and Kirk Douglas. Whew!
Martin plays things pretty low-key in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid; that's a good thing. His manic crazy persona wouldn't have fit with a noirish private dick role. It shows his ability to set his phaser on stun when necessary, something that would become more prominent later in his career. But he's still funny—again, it's hard to see someone else playing this role. But whereas with The Jerk it was because the role was so intertwined with his identity as a stand-up comic, here it's because he inhabits the role so perfectly that he makes it part of his Steve Martin-ness. This is another thing that would become a recurring theme in his career: once Martin played a role, it was usually impossible to see anyone else possibly playing it. (So for Pete's sake, don't ever cast him as Bond or Superman, okay?) The noir legends play such a huge role in this film that essentially there are only three "real" roles here: Martin, Rachel Ward, and Reiner. Ward, as the femme fatale, doesn't really have that much acting to do—but damn does she look good. A historical footnote: the great Edith Head did the costuming on this film; it was the last film she ever worked on.
Dead Men gets pretty much the same transfer as The Jerk. The film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; the black-and-white transfer is clean and crisp and looks good. A Dolby stereo audio track gets the job done without much fanfare. It didn't sound that much worse than the surround track on The Jerk, to be frank. No extras are provided other than the film's theatrical trailer.
Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid is a fun film. It's probably not as funny, nor as silly, as you'd expect. It is very entertaining, though—more entertaining than I remembered. Did I mention how good Rachel Ward looks, too?
The Lonely Guy is the weakest of the three films in this set, but it's not a bad film at all. It is incredibly dated, though. From the horrible synthpop at the beginning to the fashions on display, this film positively screams "early '80s." It also bears the unmistakable touch of Neil Simon, who "adapted" the Bruce Jay Friedman (Splash, Doctor Detroit) book The Lonely Guy's Book of Life. Since he is not credited as a screenwriter, I'm not sure exactly what Simon did to "adapt" the book—but the film sure does feel like one of Simon's '80s offerings. (All it needed was Marsha Mason.)
The Jerk was a film built entirely around Steve Martin. The Lonely Guy is a film that happens to star Steve Martin. The film itself does not contain elements designed to echo or incorporate Martin's stand-up routine. It's just a light romantic comedy role, one of many. Here, for probably the first time, we see Martin truly acting. He's playing a real character, not just Steve Martin. This is the sort of role we've seen from Martin ever since. The Wild and Crazy Guy days are long gone now; Steve's reputation today is that of a talented comic actor. In The Lonely Guy, we see his first stab at that. It's a fine, understated performance—Martin makes us like his character, which is the most important thing in a film of this ilk. His interplay with the great, underrated Charles Grodin is quite a bit of fun. Grodin is his usual outstanding self, playing the pathetic Warren with juuuuuuuust the tiniest bit of dignity. Judith Ivey is competent enough, but seems a bit out of place in this role. Had the film been made five years later, this would have been a shoo-in Meg Ryan role. Ivey just seems too blah to be Larry's dreamgirl. Well, to each his own, I guess.
The problem with The Lonely Guy is that it just doesn't feel…full. It has its moments, the best coming when Larry goes to a fancy restaurant to dine alone. Everything comes to a halt, and a spotlight singles him out as he heads to his table. The story moves along well, and the film just barely avoids wearing out its welcome. But funny as it is, I was left feeling like it should have been funnier; that there should have been more memorable set-pieces in the film. You know—it should have been more like Roxanne. Again, it's not a bad film, it's just vaguely unsatisfying.
As with Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, The Lonely Guy gets a Jerk-like transfer. The 1.85:1 anamorphic presentation is a bit muted and pastelish, but many early '80s films come across that way on DVD. It may be unavoidable. The Dolby stereo mix is, once again, competent but unexciting. And again, no extras other than the trailer are provided.
Three films, two discs, one box, nothing new. That's the calculus of Steve Martin: The Wild and Crazy Comedy Collection. All three of these films are entertaining, and true Steve Martin fans will want to own them. If you didn't get fished in by the less than impressive 26th Anniversary Edition of The Jerk, then this is a much better purchase option. You get two essential Martin films in The Jerk and Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, with The Lonely Guy thrown in as an entertaining bonus. To the best of my knowledge, neither of the latter two films have appeared on DVD yet; certainly not in anamorphic widescreen transfers. And all this for the price of a new-release DVD. That's a pretty good bargain for Steve Martin fans. Kudos to Universal for actually providing some value in what appears to be just a retread of the Jerk DVD.
Much to my surprise, not guilty.
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