TO BORROW from Abe Lincoln: Steve Martin's "L.A. Story" will make all of the people laugh some of the time, some of the people laugh all of the time but not . . . well, you know the rest.
One part La-La-land gagfest and two parts valentine (to Martin's real-life spouse Victoria Tennant), the movie has a disappointingly complacent approach. The satiric targets, from freeway shootings to new age nuttiness, are woefully familiar. The central romance, in which jaded TV weatherman Martin ("Harris K. Telemacher") pursues "interesting" British journalist Tennant, is so full of winking, offscreen compliments, it often taxes the threshold of acceptable cuteness.
Martin, who was brought up in California and has done well by L.A., avoids slam-dunking the capital of hedonism. Instead, he tweaks the town with a genial smirk, setting it up as a user-friendly backdrop for a romantic comedy. The jokes come at you in quick hits (or misses, depending on your sense of humor). There's a riding park for stationary bikes, a pedestrian sign that says "Uh Like Don't Walk," an overly friendly ATM mugger who says, "Hi, my name is Bob. I'll be your robber."
The usual Martin compliments apply. He's intrinsically funny. His mind's a resourceful gymnasium of wit. His face and body serve him with rubbery panache. He quips, mugs, shrugs and also roller-skates. At one point you'll even see him hobbling with horror after visiting a trendy enema center.
But then there's that romantic stuff. Tennant (who appeared in Martin's much-better "All of Me") is a respectable performer, but Martin has scripted her into an impossibly precious, eccentric corner. She's witty, sweet and direct. She's nice enough to let her still-smitten ex (Richard E. Grant) down gently. She even plays the tuba. What a woman, we are required to conclude.
Ironically, Sarah Jessica Parker, in a narratively thankless bimbo role, exudes far more believability. As a young beach-thing called "SanDeE" who temporarily distracts Martin before his inevitable union with Tennant, she's a pleasing, surprisingly sympathetic blur of gyrating limbs, sinewy body bending and hair twirling.
But here's the final viewer test. During the course of his initially unrequited yearnings for Tennant, Martin meets this electronic highway road sign. It turns out to be a modern West Coast version of an oracle, a big lug of a neon pillar that tells the future, gives Martin personal advice and wants nothing more than a big hug. If you buy this Spielberg-like device, then you can be sure you're going to have a great time with this movie.