(Second viewing, On TV, May 2018) screenwriter/director John Hughes’ Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a comedy classic for a reason—it makes great use of two comic actors (Steve Martin and John Candy), features a series of memorable sequences, plays on universal annoyances and doesn’t forget to add a little bit of sentiment toward the end to temper the comedy. Everyone can relate to uncontrollable delays and setbacks in trying to get home for the holidays, and Hughes pushes it to the limit in describing what else can happen to two harried travellers. (The film reaches a comic apex of sort during its fiery highway sequence.) Martin plays exasperated as well as Candy plays exasperator, and the result couldn’t be better. It’s not a complex film, and it works largely because of this straightforwardness. It’s worth another viewing every few thanksgivings.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) My history of film comedy is shaky, but if I recall correctly, The Jerk was an early example of the idiot-protagonist subgenre, especially as executed as a continuous series of gags. Steve Martin was trying to broaden his appeal beyond stand-up comedy at the time, but the film he wrote ended up reflecting his gag-a-minute sensibilities, with a generous side dish of absurdity. Does it still work? Well, sort-of: While comedy audiences today are far more used to rapid-fire idiot comedies (Will Ferrell’s career comes to mind), The Jerk acts as a prototype of the form and, as such, can feel a bit slack compared to later examples. Its eagerness to throw everything on-screen to see what sticks can feel desperate, and it does have strange ideas about pacing that occasionally stop the film dead. It’s amusing more than funny (although I couldn’t help but laugh audibly at the kitten-juggling moment, probably helped along by the fact that I was caring for a kitten at the time) but it does have a good-natured tone that’s hard to resist even today. Steve Martin is irreplaceable as the title character, and it’s always nice to see Bernadette Peters going for laughs in her prime. The Jerk appealed to a specific kind of viewer back then (i.e.; Steve Martin fans) and while that audience may have grown since then, it’s still not a comedy for everyone. I found the details and throwaway gags funnier than the overall story, but that’s to be expected from a quasi-slapstick comedy.
(On TV, April 2017) Steve Martin as a goofy-ish dad trying to weather the storm of his daughter’s upper-crust wedding is a guaranteed middle-of-the-road comic premise. So it’s not really surprising to see him in Father of the Bride undergoing an episodic accumulation of everything that can go wrong in planning a wedding, from trivial details blown up to gigantic proportions to bad weather to money matters. It’s all in the mandatory elements of such a premise, and Martin is a good sport for going through it all. This aspect of Father of the Bride isn’t surprising, and it’s best to ignore the cavalcade of coincidences and contrivances that power the script. I expected as much. On the other hand, what I didn’t expect was the gradual poignancy, in-between the goofy slapstick, of a father having to deal with the departure of his only daughter, giving her away to her new husband. While the opening monologue can be mistaken for a comic setup, there are some good heartfelt moments late in the movie as the melancholy of seeing his daughter leave the house finally hits our protagonist. It’s all the more surprising given that the film seemed perfectly happy operating in silly mode, with Martin mugging for the camera in-between familiar comic sequences. Father of the Bride is better than expected largely because it can catch audiences (and, specifically, fathers) unaware and defenseless. Call it a happy surprise.
(On TV, March 2017) The law of diminishing returns is fully operative in discussing The Pink Panther 2, second in a reboot series starring Steve Martin as Inspecteur Clouseau. Much of the surprise of the first movie is gone, replaced by an expansion of the story that, to its credit, doesn’t try to ape the first film too much. Here, a genius thief named The Tornado is stealing precious artifacts around the world—it’s up to a team of criminal investigators, including Clouseau, to catch the villain. But bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better, and as the investigation goes to Rome and then back to Paris, The Pink Panther 2 struggles to remain interesting. It pains me to say that, as much as any movie with Aishwarya Rai is like a little bit of sunshine, she doesn’t bring much to the movie—and neither do reliable performers like Alfred Molina or Andy Garcia. Even returning players such as Jean Reno and Emily Mortimer aren’t given much to do … although John Cleese may be a little bit better as Kevin Kline’s replacement. Few of the gags in this sequel are as inspired as some of the ones in the first movie, and while the rather good conclusion also does much to focus the film’s impression, it does come a bit too late to be truly effective. Eight years later, it does seem as if the Steve Martin Pink Panther reboot series ended there and I’m not seeing anyone bemoaning that fact.
(On TV, March 2017) The dangers with slapstick comedies are numerous. Badly handled, they become juvenile, offensive, repetitive and annoying. Well-done, preferably combined with other kinds of humour, slapstick can bring a lot of energy in a comedy. The Steve Martin remake of The Pink Panther doesn’t avoid the worst pitfalls of its subgenre, but it generally succeeds more than it fails, and crucially gets significantly better toward the end. The point of the movie is the character of Inspecteur Clouseau, often bumbling, usually disaster-prone but (this is important) someone who can eventually piece together the mystery in the end. So it is that the first half of The Pink Panther accumulates all of the problems of slapstick. It’s brought down to a kids’ movie worst-common-denominator level, has little subtlety or wit, keeps doubling-down on gags that aren’t funny in the first place and often skirt discomfort at the physical violence of some jokes. Clouseau’s antics are more likely to make audience cringe than laugh. But here and there, we can see signs that the film knows what it’s doing. A few recurring gags and over-the-top madness combine to have a cyclist crash into a newsstand that then explodes, earning the first laugh of the film and reassuring us that the filmmakers are truly going for excess. As the movie goes on, we get to understand its sense of humour better and succumb (at least occasionally) to it. The ending, during which Clouseau pieces everything together in a dazzling sequence of deductions, does quite a bit to endear us to the movie, even as flawed as it is—it’s one thing to have a completely incompetent hero, but it’s much better to see them pull it together in the end. Martin is decent as Clouseau—my memories of Peter Sellers as the original Clouseau are so far away that I don’t have a lot of material for comparison, but he sells both the verbal and the physical comedy. Meanwhile, Jean Reno has a rare (and imposing) clean-shaven role as a sidekick, Kevin Kline has the sadistic-boss role wrapped up, Emily Mortimer is unusually cute as the romantic interest (she gets two or three of the film’s best scenes) and Beyoncé Knowles shows up in a bid to be taken seriously as a comic actress, with middling results. Jason Statham and Clive Owen also very briefly show up in too-small roles. The Pink Panther isn’t particularly good, but it is occasionally effective, and its dedication to slapstick makes for an unusual entry in today’s comedy styling.
(On TV, January 2016) Much has been made of Steve Martin’s migration from the world of stand-up performances to that of a movie actor, and nearly twenty-five years after The Jerk, mainstream comedy Cheaper by the Dozen does seem to be the end-point of that transition. As safe, predictable and family-friendly as it’s possible to be, Cheaper by the Dozen goes for the big populist laughs, the easy traditional values, the broad mugging for the camera and the most formulaic path from premise to conclusion. It’s (generally speaking) about a couple with a dozen kids, but it’s also (more specifically) about a man trying to hold a household together after accepting a new job and seeing his wife go away on an extended business trip. Its main selling point is watching Martin making exasperated faces as chaos reigns around him, then smiling the grin of the content family man once those little issues have been resolved. It does work reasonably well at what it intends to be: the kind of movie that no-one really hates, that can fit into just any cable channel’s line-up and which attracts practically no ill-will nor any lasting memory minutes after the closing credits. Fortunately, Martin is (or was, at the time of the film’s production) one of the best at portraying good dads, and presumably made quite a bit of money doing something far more reliable than stand-up comedy. The result may not be the fullest use of his talents, but who are we to second-guess such a successful decision? There’s a fair case to be made that Cheaper by the Dozen (and plenty of other movies in his filmography) would have been much worse without him.
(On Cable TV, October 2015) Doesn’t Alec Baldwin make a splendid shmuck? That kind of performance seems to be the main justification for It’s Complicated, an otherwise amiable film to the point of not being of much interest. Director Nancy Meyer once again turns her attention to Rich White People’s problems (as in; hiring an architecture firm to supervise the construction of a kitchen addition) before resigning herself to showing some conflict. It sort-of-works if that’s the kind of film you’re looking for, or if you simply want to enjoy the film on superficial acting performances, lifestyle aspiration or simply the idea of people having very small problems. To its credit, It’s Complicated has a bit of sense in its conclusion, and can depend on Meryl Streep to sleep-walk through an unchallenging role, while Steve Martin is blander than expected in a stealth romantic hero role (he does get a split-second “wild and crazy guy” moment, though.) and Alec Baldwin is almost delightfully slimy. Jon Krazinski also gets one or two good moments, but otherwise It’s Complicated is a film on auto pilot, almost too nice to be interesting.
Scribner, 2007, 209 pages, C$29.99 hc, ISBN 978-1-4165-5364-9
There’s an admirable purity in stand-up comedy, which remains one of the most direct art form out there: a guy with a microphone, making a crowd react by the sheer power of his words alone. Jokes are easy, but comedy is hard and it takes a long time to learn how to do it well.
That’s the best reason to read Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up, an autobiography that tackles Martin’s career from his days as a Disneyland employee to the point when he decided to quit stand-up in favor of film comedy. Nowadays, Steve Martin has a very different reputation than he had at the end of the seventies: His movie career has degenerated in easy safe self-parody (CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN? BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE? THE PINK PANTHER?), while his work on projects such as Shopgirl has earned him serious literary accolades.
But by the end of the seventies, Martin was one of the best-known stand-up comics in America, presenting to sold-out arenas. He held top billing for only a few years, but it took decades to get there: Born Standing Up tells how it happened, following Martin through small acting jobs, early stand-up gigs and how he gradually developed his style of comedy.
Martin has earned accolade for his writing projects, and Born Standing Up is a fine example of his skill as a writer. The book is short and breezy to read, even when tackling the earlier years that are less interesting to audiences than Martin’s stand-up success. He chooses to end the book by a heartfelt chapter talking about his relationship with his parents. (Though I doubt it, there may be a second volume in the works: Martin chooses to focus this book on comedy, and it seldom mention the events of the past twenty-five years, and practically ignores his movie work after THE JERK.)
Students of comedy will be pleased by the material in this book. (Though poor students of comedy will have already read the essay in The New Yorker that reprints almost all of the book’s best chapter.) We get a sense of the life of a would-be comedian as he learns how to deal with the crowd, chooses a comedy style that runs counter to people’s expectations and becomes better-known through various jobs and occupations, from live theater to scripted television, Johnny Carson appearances to Saturday Night Live (which gets less of a mention than you’d expect.)
As a memoir, it’s what we would expect from “a Steve Martin autobiography”: it’s frank, it’s detailed, it’s revealing and it gives a good idea of the life he’s lived. Those who missed Martin’s stand-up years may want to hit YouTube and experience a number of his routines for themselves, just so to put everything else in a proper context. Humor theorists will get a kick out of Martin’s self-conscious attempts to undermine the very idea of stand-up comedy by disregarding the expectations of the crowd –a trick that, in good hands, leads to even more laughter through audience desperation when faced with non sequitur.
This being said, people with tighter budgets and fainter affection for Martin may want to check this book at the library, or wait for the paperback: at barely more than two hundred airy pages (albeit with numerous pictures), it feels overpriced at nearly C$29, especially for those who have read the New Yorker article, which contains most of what readers will remember from the book. Readers who skip biography chapters until the person becomes successful (a group I’m always tempted to join) may not find all that much meat here; neither will those who expect a tell-all airing of dirty laundry. Particularly picky readers will bemoan the lack of an index.
But there’s still a kick to Born Standing Up, especially if you want an inside look at the live of a touring comedian, and the dues that have to be paid before mastering the craft. Because, in the end, it’s still one guy with a microphone and a few carefully-chosen words versus a crowd of people who expect a good time.
(On VHS, June 2001) Midwest yokels come to New York City and are quickly out of their depth! How funnier can it be? A lot funnier, easily. Goldie Hawn and Steve Martin reprise their usual screen personae, adding nothing and screaming a lot with scarcely any indication of how good they can be in other types of roles. John Cleese is a hoot as usual. The various plot points are pretty much predictable in advance, and aren’t all that skilfully executed either. For a film about New York, there isn’t a whole lot of scenery. There have been worse films, there have been better films, so there isn’t any cause for concern if ever you pass by The Out-Of-Towners and don’t pick it up.
(Second viewing, in French, on Cable TV, December 2018) Watching The Out-Of-Towners remake right after the 1969 original only underscores how much more slap-sticky is the remake. Gone are the more serious undertones and barely-repressed desperation of the original. Instead, we get Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn hamming it up as much as they can stand. The result actually is reliably funny, although unsubstantial to a point where I didn’t even realize I had seen the film seventeen years ago. One good point in favour of the remake: the much more active role given to the female lead — it sure helps that Hawn can be reliably funny on a dime. There’s a surprising cameo appearance from pre-America’s-Mayor, pre-Crazy-Pundit Rudy Giuliani.