Pajiba's (Slightly) Underappreciated Gems
L.A. Story / Dustin Rowles
Underappreciated Gems | February 14, 2008 | Comments ()
I write so many of the site’s rom-com reviews not because I like to inflict psychological harm on myself (though there is that, too — I like the way karma evens it out in real life) but because, when done right, romantic comedies are actually my favorite film genre. Indeed, every other week or so, I hold out hope that I might be surprised or, at the very least, not insulted by the sugary butt mud that Hollywood deems fit to shit out its wrinkly hole. Unfortunately, and as both 27 Dresses and Over Her Dead Body have recently proven, good — or even decent — romantic comedies are a rare bird at the multiplex — sadly, there are 25 Kate Hudson, Katherine Heigl, Matthew McConaughey, and Jennifer Aniston disasterbacles for every one heartrending Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or authentically clever High Fidelity.
And so today (as part of Pajiba’s unofficial Steve Martin day), in order to satiate my need to feel something besides anger, listlessness, or resentment at the current state of cinematic love stories, I want to take a gander back at one of my favorites, a movie that was only moderately well received 17 years ago and then was more or less forgotten: L.A. Story, Steve Martin’s beautiful ode to both a city and a girl, a movie that proves you don’t need a complicated series of hijinx or John Cusack to make a successful rom-com. Indeed, the traditional formula (unhappy boy meets ideal girl, woos ideal girl, loses ideal girl, wins ideal girl back), in the right hands, can still work; it just needs a fresh approach, good writing, and something besides a couple dozen dresses, a one-joke premise, and a bony clavicle upon which to hang its jacket.
L.A. Story stars Steve Martin as Harris K. Telemacher, who, despite having a Ph.D. in Arts and Humanities, holds the most useless job in L.A.: He’s the wacky meteorologist behind the Wiggy Weekend Weather report, a job he somehow manages to screw up despite temperatures that range between 72 and 72 degrees (as the show’s executive, Woody Harrelson, implores: “More wacky, less egghead”). Telemacher has had seven heart attacks, all imagined, and tells us immediately that he has been “deeply unhappy, but I didn’t know it, because I was so happy all the time.” He’s stuck in a loveless relationship with the solipsistic, appearance-obsessed Trudi (Marilu Henner), who eventually leaves Harris for his agent (Harris protests, “I thought he was only supposed to take 10 percent!”). Since his occupation fills about a half-an-hour a day (he sometimes pre-tapes the weather report) Harris kills time in L.A. by roller skating through art galleries while his best friend (Susan Forristel) captures him on video: “”I call it performance art, but my friend Ariel calls it wasting time … History will decide.”
He meets and falls in love with a London journalist (Sara McDowell), who is in town to write a snooty article about L.A. and also to give her relationship with her sexually ambiguous ex-husband one last go (“What’s that jangling sound?” “Oh, that’s just my damp testicles.”). Harris and Sara meet during a typical L.A. lunch (they casually dine through an earthquake) and, on the way home, Harris’ car breaks down in front of a freeway sign (the metaphorical voice of L.A.), which solicits a hug and, in exchange, offers him advice in the form of a word scramble. As he works to untangle his love life, he ends up simultaneously courting Sara and dating a spokes-model-in-training SanDeE* (Sarah Jessica Parker at her effervescentiest), who takes him out for burgers at the Hard Rock and, later, a high-colonic.
i>L.A. Story is primarily a treatise on the vapidity of Los Angeles (think west coast version of Annie Hall) and a love letter to screenwriter Martin’s then wife (Tennant). Like The Jerk, L.A. Story has a gag or ten in every scene, and humor that is both intelligent (he paraphrases Shakespeare, whom he contends wrote Hamlet Part 8: The Revenge in L.A.) and low-brow (“I could never be a woman because I’d just stay home and play with my breasts all the time.”). I’ve been to L.A. a couple of times and I’ve never cared for it (no offense, but in my estimation, it’s pretty much Dallas with celebrities and palm trees), but Martin — who wrote the screenplay — displays his enormous affection for the city by constantly putting it down (“You’re nobody in L.A. unless you live in a house with a really big door.”).
Indeed, L.A. Story is one of the richest comedies I’ve ever seen — after seeing it nearly two dozen times, I still manage to catch something new (over the weekend, I noticed that an exclusive restaurant pronounced “Leedio” is actually named “l’idiot”) — but it’s also one of the most romantic (it may/should be the only movie that could actually prompt a brief obsession with Enya). There are lines — “let your mind go and your body will follow” and “a kiss may not be the truth, but it is what we wish were true” — that you just don’t hear in romantic comedies anymore (compare those lines with, say, this gem from 27 Dresses: “Love is patient, love is kind, love is slowly going out of your mind”’; or, maybe this one, from The Wedding Planner: “Love can’t always be perfect. Love is just love.” Brilliant, right?) It’s a sweet, magical-realist love story wrapped around a witty and irreverent satire of L.A., and it’s the (empty) promise that a movie like L.A. Story might come around again that keeps me returning each week for a new round of punishment.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.