Sharing Steve :: New Stuff
Saturday, November 13, 2004
 

Steve the Intellectual


Daily Variety
November 12, 2004, Friday
SPECIAL SECTION1; Pg. A4
A city's cinematic soul
ROBERT KOEHLER

Steve Martin's story is far from finished, which alone is notable for a guy who began as an engaging but clownish goon of a standup comic in the early '70s.

The course that Martin has traveled from his routines on Johnny Carson's "The Tonight Show" to being one of the only Hollywood stars to have written full-fledged novels and plays may seem unmatched except by Woody Allen (the pair have even regularly contributed light comic aperitifs over the years to the New Yorker), but there are several striking differences. Not least of them is that while Allen took to directing and increasingly sticking close to a few choice square miles of midtown Manhattan, Martin has remained a writer-performer interested in everything but autobiography and with a strong desire to explore and understand Los Angeles.

In fact, Martin's approach to his adopted city (he is originally from Laura Bush country, in Waco, Texas) provides a way of tracing his evolution from a wild and crazy guy into a real artist. His first real stab at Los Angeles was his 1991 "L.A. Story," a loving/lampooning postcard of a movie that packed enough cartoonish jokes about the place into its running time to satisfy any outsider's fears and any local's best and worst memories.

The movie is such a slice of its time, though, that it's datedness is pretty stunning, and its depiction of Los Angeles is strictly that of a privileged and map-challenged Westsider who somehow gets from his Westside apartment to a Hollywood TV studio via the Los Angeles River downtown.

By the time Martin got around a few years later to writing his beautiful novel, "Shopgirl" (which he has adapted for the screen starring himself and Claire Danes), the city and the people in it --- some directly matching those in "L.A. Story" --- have become truer and more painful, the cliches dropping away and being replaced by a world with people living quietly, desperately.

That's why the frat boys who loved to mimic Martin in the '70s when he became a huge star via his live shows, recordings and his fabulous string of guest-host appearances on "Saturday Night Live" were shocked when the guy in the banana suit immediately turned around and played a tragic Depression-era man in the film version of Dennis Potter's "Pennies From Heaven." This turn hinted at things to come: Martin was sending out the signal that there was more to him than a wide grin, a gangly body and a flat voice that could suddenly erupt with hilarity.

Another sign was Martin's emergence as a playwright with "Picasso at the Lapin Agile." Those anticipating that a Martin play would be a variation on the standup act were amazed that this guy could write --- not just a screenplay, not just a scene, but a sustained, multiact stage comedy.

Typical Martin, "Picasso" perfectly encapsulates how he follows in the American showbiz tradition of men such as Victor Borge, Will Rogers and even Orson Welles. Martin is smart enough to not only know his art (he has long been one of Los Angeles' most serious art patrons and promoters) but to show it in his material. His play reveals an understanding of Paris' cubist moment, and his prose is sprinkled with references to Ed Ruscha, Helen Frankenthaler and other artists.

"Picasso," though, is a light boulevard comedy (as the French term it) that hardly gets at issues about art the way that, for instance, playwright Donald Margulies has. Martin, like Borge, is an educated, cultured man who has the American instinct for not pushing his audience too far about his knowledge, and a knack for making it all a joke in the end.

He'll pull back from getting too serious: "Pennies From Heaven" wasn't a hit, so he knew better and opted to write sillier movies in the '80s like "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid," "The Man With Two Brains" and "Three Amigos!" Then, with the clown back in place, he could turn to the more nuanced and literary-tinged comedy of "Roxanne."

Since his 1997 dramatic turn in David Mamet's "The Spanish Prisoner," Martin has entered his most interesting phase, where there's no way to predict what he'll do next. He's alternated Hollywood acting jobs in "Cheaper by the Dozen," "Bringing Down the House" and "The Out-of-Towners" (and next, "The Pink Panther" as Inspector Clouseau) with interesting indie film roles in "Joe Gould's Secret" and "Novocaine." His diversity has become shocking, from his superb double-play as writer and co-star of "Bowfinger" --- his best film --- to his extreme comedic turn in Joe Dante's badly underrated "Looney Tunes: Back in Action."

The relative shtick of his second novel, "The Pleasure of My Company," may indicate that Martin doesn't have a real second novel in him. But this is one unashamedly intellectual clown who isn't afraid of revealing more sides to himself than anyone had any right to expect.

Since the Steve Martin story is incomplete, it's best to expect more surprises.

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