I always root for Steve Martin. I find his particular brand of dumbhead humor rather sanity-soothing, and I would like to see him make a good movie someday.
At least he makes unusual movies: Dead Men Don‘t Wear Plaid incorporated clips from old private-eye films within its storyline, and the notorious Pennies From Heaven, a musical about despair, was certainly one of the oddest films of the last decade.
The failure of last year’s The Man With Two Brains – is that a great title or what? – suggested that his audience preferred a Steve Martin comedy with as few brains as possible. The Lonely Guy is an attempt to hit a middle ground: the plot is relatively normal – almost anyone could have taken the lead role. It’s about a greeting-card writer (really a would-be novelist, naturally) whose girlfriend kicks him out of their apartment. His attempts to lick loneliness in New York City become the center of the film.
If the story is normal, the treatment is offbeat. Martin and company have embroidered the tale with bizarre, almost surrealistic touches, in a slapstick style reminiscent of one of Martin’s idols, Jerry Lewis. When Steve goes to visit the Manhattan Bridge to contemplate ending it all, he doesn’t just bump into another suicide – there are Lonely Guys falling from the rafters at the rate of one every minute.
Absurdist touches such as that threaten to lift the movie above its tired storyline. We’ve seen enough movies about getting in touch with oneself in New York City to last a few lifetimes, but it hasn’t been played as surrealist farce before.
Sad to say, The Lonely Guy doesn’t go far enough. Director Arthur Hiller is too straight-laced to delve in to the wilder possibilities of a project like this, and the screenplay cheats between trying to tell its realistic plot and trying to be wild and crazy.
But some of the park-bench dialogues between Martin and fellow Lonely Guy Charles Grodin have a loose, improvised quality. Their comic material together springs out of their desperation, which gives it a nice edge; in a scene that works pretty neatly, Grodin insists they buy plants to keep them company, and then starts shaking the leaves on his fern to wave “Bye-Bye” to Martin’s fern.
At one point, Martin prepares for his first date with a girl (Judith Ivey) he’s just met after jogging (well, actually he ran for one minute and then sprayed himself with some substance with a name like Insta-Sweat). He can’t get to sleep the night before the date, and he hugs his pillow and starts pitching woo at it. By the time he kisses the thing, the scene has a Chaplinesque wistfulness. It succeeds mainly because of Martin himself, who is getting better as a screen presence just when his audience seems to be leaving him.
But The Lonely Guy is still not a step up for him, and he has yet to make a solid movie. Maybe I’ll be proved wrong about that 20 years from now, when the French hail his films as cinematic masterpieces, and award him the Legion of Honor, as they did last month to – that’s right – Jerry Lewis.
First published in the Herald, January 1984
I remember the film being bland, but it probably deserved better than this equally bland review. I do remember one scene I’ve often thought of since, when Martin goes into a restraurant by himself and pulls out a notepad so the staff will think he’s a food critic. Martin’s first really good movie would come a few months later, All of Me. I don’t know what I’m trying to get at with the Legion of Honor stuff, either; Jerry Lewis certainly deserved one, and them some. And my opening is woefully insufficient to how I really felt about Steve Martin, who was a god to me from the first time I saw him on The Tonight Show sometime in the 70s – it was liberating to discover a comedian who was funny in a new kind of way, a way that owed nothing to the comedians of your parents’ generation. It was as though Shecky Green and all those guys got wiped away overnight.