Wednesday, June 03, 2009

5/30/09: The Lonely Guy (1984)

Since I first saw him perform his stand-up comedy, I have considered Steve Martin a genius. His early TV comedy specials were inspired, and his early film career produced some of my favorite comedies, some of which he scripted himself (Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, Roxanne) and some written by others (All of Me, Little Shop of Horrors). And although Martin has continued to be funny on TV, and in plays and books he's written, his later films failed to deliver on his early promise, and today he churns out so many warmed-over retreads and remakes of old movies and TV shows that space prohibits me from even listing here. The fact is, I haven't loved a Steve Martin movie since 1989's Parenthood. So I had reason to look forward to The Lonely Guy, filmed well before I totally lost interest in Martin's film career. I think the only reason I missed it in the first place was that I read a bunch of mediocre reviews of it.

The movie turns out to be more more subued than one might expect, given Martin's early "wacky" persona. Many of the jokes fizzle hopelessly, the direction (by the unpredictable Arthur Hiller) is mediocre, and a few times, my intelligence was offended by the script. Martin plays a newly single guy who can't adapt to being alone; at one point he meets another single guy (Charles Grodin) and they have this exchange:

Grodin: I'm Warren Evans.
Martin (shaking his hand): Larry Hubbard.
Grodin: First-time lonely guy?
Martin: What's a lonely guy?

Ummm, are you fucking kidding me? A male adult needs to have that expression defined for him? Dialogue like this doesn't belong in a movie for thinking people. Which brings me to my next point, which is that about half of the movie really is genuinely funny, likeable and satirical. My favorite lines, between Martin and Grodin, are obviously improvised—I wish there had been more of that. I suspect the problem here is one of too many cooks spoiling the broth: the screenplay was the result of several writers, including original book author Bruce Jay Friedman, playwright Neil Simon and Mary Tyler Moore Show collaborators Stan Daniels and Ed Weinberger, as well as any improvised stuff contributed by Martin. Sometimes The Lonely Guy seems genuinely fresh and funny; other times, not so much. The humor is all over the map:

• Black-comedy moments involving the suicides of numerous lonely men;

• Silly moments (like when Steve gets into bed with his girlfriend, oblivious to the fact that she's sleeping with another guy);

• Inspired moments (Steve winds up in bed with some hot models and Dr. Joyce Brothers);

• Surreal moments (Steve goes into a restaurant alone, and literally has a spotlight shone upon him to make him the embarrassed center of attention).

There's also a terrific sight gag involving the pages of a day-by-day wall calendar that made me laugh out loud. As I say, some of it works, some of it doesn't.

There's not much of a plot to the film, and that works to its advantage. When it starts to be about something, it's inevitably the romance between Steve and Judith Ivey, which never quite gels. Every time they hook up, she dumps him on the grounds that he's too nice, or too perfect, or too sexy, or something nonsensical like that. (It's easily the worst part of the movie.) I craved more of the Woody Allenish bits, like the one where Steve consults with a psychiatrist who only interacts through his street-level intercom, and more Steve Martinish bits, like the one where Steve tries to lure potential dates by getting too big of a dog, who drags him along the sidewalk on his belly. A couple of times during the movie, Steve narrates in voice-over or addresses the audience by talking directly into the camera, but this device is never fully realized. The Lonely Guy probably would have been better if it believed more in itself and much less restrained. There are enough funny bits to make it worth seeing, but it could have been a real classic. Rating: 3/5.

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