As you may have seen in my preview, I was worried that L.A. Story‘s satire of life in Los Angeles during the early Nineties wouldn’t hold up well in our times. There are a lot of ways it doesn’t, but fortunately this movie lets you know right from the beginning that you shouldn’t take it too seriously. But it must be said that a lot of what must have been hilarious in 1991 has changed its tone in 2020.
For instance: the opening scenes of road rage aren’t funny any more except for the sheer audacity of trying to play such a thing for laughs. The notorious coffee order comes surprisingly early in the film and is still funny, but for an entirely different reason. In 1991, the US had not much of a coffee culture, so the L.A. trendoids’ increasingly sophisticated orders sounded like gibberish, making Harris K. Telemacher (Steve Martin)’s order, which is actual gibberish, awesomely funny. In 2020, the coffee orders are boringly conventional and Telemacher’s sounds like an attempt to play Stump The Barista — which means the scene is still funny, but now for a different reason. And, while the scenes involving Telemacher’s attempt to eat at the pretentious French restaurant L’Idiot are probably the funniest things in this movie, what makes it go so far over the top now is that no one would suffer like that any more for a meal of French food. L’Idiot’s Yelp reviews would close the place down immediatement.
And then there’s one small scene where Harris gets in his car to drive two houses down the street. Perfect then; maybe a little too close to the truth now.
I had some other questions before I watched. Yes, he’s a wacky weatherman. Yes, he converses with the freeway sign. And yes, this is a love story/rom-com.
Harris has a bad relationship with his shallow, image-conscious girlfriend Trudi (Marilu Henner). Their life together, for both of them, looks like being pecked to death by a goldfinch. When he learns that she’s been cheating on him for years with his agent, he’s hardly crushed. Indeed, he’s got two women to choose from: the young, sunny, but not very curious SanDeE* (Sarah Jessica Parker) and the older, grounded British journalist Sara (Victoria Tennant; she and Martin were married in real life at the time). The freeway sign helps him woo SanDeE* first, then guides him towards Sara, with whom you can tell Harris is smitten.
It takes about half the movie just to get to this point. And while it seems like the question of the movie will be “Which woman will Harris choose?” it’s obvious from early on that he and SanDeE* don’t belong together. Indeed, in a movie with talking freeway signs and a played-for-comedy freeway firefight in the first ten minutes, the hardest thing for me to believe is that there was mutual interest between Harris and SanDeE*. They have little in common, though their scenes together do throw a nice contrast with Harris’s professional friends, who are stuffy and pretentious in all the ways SanDeE* is not.
Thing is, Sara isn’t pretentious either, and she gets Harris’s many Shakespeare references. They have obvious chemistry together. But this is a rom-com. The obvious couple cannot have a smooth path. Sara is only in L.A. for a short time and her ex-husband Roland (Richard E. Grant) is desperate to get back together with her. Roland has all the personality of leftover Minute Rice, but he’s a wealthy art dealer, so there’s that. Through a variety of coincidences (forgiven since this movie is an exercise in deus ex machina) the two couples wind up in adjacent hotel rooms, there’s a big blowup between Harris and Sara, and it looks like she’s going to go back to London alone.
But the freeway sign had a prophecy, and all movie prophecies must come true. A freak storm with some sort of magnetic component (I guess) grounds Sara’s plane and she shows up at Harris’s place, tuba in hand (it makes sense in context).
If all of this sounds like fairly thin soup, that’s because it is. You know in the first twenty minutes how this movie will end. What you don’t know is how it will get there. Along the way it does an admirable, if dated, piss-take on Los Angeles. Not once did I laugh out loud but I smiled a lot, and the end did move me.
Why is that? Because, if you take out all the L.A. satire, you’re left with a movie about how hard it is to find anything real and good when you’re surrounded by superficiality and artificiality, how lucky you are to find someone you truly connect with, and how much it sucks to lose that connection, if even just for a moment. The real tell is early on when Harris says “Let us just say that I was deeply unhappy, but I didn’t know it because I was so happy all the time.” Everything he does in the movie is a search for true happiness as opposed to the forced happiness he feels with his friends, and the non-happiness he has with Trudi. That’s a message that is timeless, even if L.A. Story‘s satire isn’t.
Next week: I risk my enjoyment of a great novel in a quixotic quest to see if it’s actually possible for Bruce Willis to be a supporting actor.