Los Angeles is the city that launched a thousand jokes. Not only is it a comedy capital, it's a comedy fountainhead, supplying a grateful nation with endless hilarious examples of nouveau absurdism. The city is a living satire, and, for a comedian, there's a problem in this: How do you caricature what is, by its very nature, a caricature? But what Steve Martin has done in his slight but affectionately funny "L.A. Story" is build a stage for the city's everyday surrealism. He's let L.A. be L.A., right down to the last double decaf espresso -- with a twist.
Part spoof and part romantic comedy, the film amounts to an anthology of California punch lines. There are nose job jokes, freeway jokes, jokes about shameless careerism, agents, breast implants, infidelity and restaurants. And, of course -- because Martin plays Harris K. Telemacher, a gonzo weatherman for a local television station -- a whole slew of jokes about the weather -- or lack thereof. The topics here are far from fresh. The whole project, in fact, suffers from a sense of time warpage, which for satire is near life-threatening.
What saves "L.A. Story" is its soft-centered sweetness. The movie is a bonbon; it delivers a little sugar jolt. Instead of savaging the Angeleno vacuousness, Martin -- who based his script on the beginnings of his real-life romance with his wife and costar, Victoria Tennant -- embraces the town's space case innocence. He and director Mick Jackson, who gives the picture a spritzy bounce, portray these lifestyle adventurers as hopelessly romantic children. He loves the way they fondle their crystals, looking for enlightenment. And he loves their half-baked attempts at self-perfection and the guilty malaise that gnaws at them because, in spite of all their privileges, happiness in paradise eludes them.
That combination of sunshine and melancholy matches perfectly with the mixture of loose-screw zaniness and pathos in Martin's own comic personality. He plays Harris as something of a sad-sack idealist; he's droopy, but wide-eyed and ever hopeful. When he discovers that his callous girlfriend (Marilu Henner) has been cheating on him with his agent ("I thought he was only supposed to get 10 percent!"), he follows up on his infatuation with Sara, a tuba-playing British journalist (Tennant), who's in town writing about -- what else? -- Los Angeles.
There are complications, though. On her side, there's a sexually ambivalent ex-husband (Richard E. Grant), and on his side a gyrating young space bunny named SanDeE
(Sarah Jessica Parker), who suffers, it seems, from something like spandex poisoning.
Part of the problem with the film, though, is that we'd much rather see Harris paired up with the incandescently ditsy SanDeE
-- imagine a nymphomaniacal Thumper -- than the rather arid-souled Sara. This is no small wrinkle, considering that the film is designed as a quasi-autobiographical rendering of the Martin-Tennant love story. But the sparks are all between Parker and Martin; she lightens him and brings out that peculiar strain of wiggy squareness in him. With Tennant, he becomes blander and more ordinary.
There are places in "L.A. Story" where Martin's poetic elegance turns to sappy mysticism. And if the material had been presented more insistently, it might have been insufferable, too goopy and new-age. Its modesty, though, is its prime virtue. It's breezy and light as cloud's breath -- not so much airheaded as air-hearted.
L.A. Story, at area theaters, is rated PG-13.