Steve Martin: The Wild and Crazy Comedy Collection brings together three of his earliest movies, a trip back to those halcyon days before this gifted performer and writer resorted to stale remakes of family-friendly fare.
During the height of his popularity as a comedian in the mid-1970s, the self-proclaimed "Wild and Crazy Guy" achieved a sublime blend of the idiotic and the intellectual. His gags, which ran the gamut from a fake arrow through the head to uncontrollable spasms of "happy feet," were shamelessly silly, but they never were dumb. With his endearingly smug grin and hipster sophistication, Steve Martin always let you know with an implicit wink and a nudge how goofy he knew his shtick was. That ironic sensibility permeated his earliest movies, especially 1979's The Jerk and 1982's Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid.
What better way for Steve Martin to make his big splash into motion pictures than the story of a colossally stupid white guy who begins his tale thusly: "I was born a poor black child ..."?
Twenty-seven years after The Jerk gave us the moronic misadventures of Navin Johnson, the flick stands as a sort of pioneer in the genre of dumb-guy comedy. There is little pretense of story, or even much logic within the flimsy confines of its story. Instead, the writing team of Martin, Carl Gottlieb and Michael Elias essentially strung together a series of gags based on Martin's stage persona.
That's no putdown, though. Directed by Carl Reiner, The Jerk can be wobbly and even sloppy, but it also packs more than enough uproariously funny bits. There is little point in cataloging the best moments, especially since the dumb glee of shouting, "The new phonebook's here! The new phonebook's here!" loses something in the translation.
Suffice it to say that The Jerk is pure shaggy-dog tale. Navin Johnson is a dimwitted white boy raised by a poor black family in the Deep South. Leaving home to see the world once he realizes his folks aren't blood kin, Navin takes a variety of odd jobs -- gas station attendant, weight-guesser for a traveling carnival -- before making his fortune as the inventor of a ridiculous eyeglass contraption called the "Opti-Grab." Along the way, he befriends a recalcitrant mutt, dodges a psychotic sniper, discovers his "special purpose," learns the horrors of cat juggling and falls head-over-ukulele in love with the girl of his dreams, played with kewpie-doll conviction by Bernadette Peters.
Martin's engaging persona goes a long way toward keeping The Jerk afloat even when it starts to run out of steam. Navin Johnson is an imbecile, sure, but he is a lovable imbecile who faces each obstacle with unflappable joy and guileless optimism.
Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid
Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid is a gimmick of a movie that works far better that it should. Re-teaming with Carl Reiner, Martin plunders the film noir vaults for this spoof that interweaves clips from such noir gems as The Big Sleep, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, This Gun for Hire, White Heat and The Killers, to name but a few. Thanks to over-the-shoulder shots from those classics, Martin gets to scold Humphrey Bogart for his nerdy clothing, seduce Ingrid Bergman and indulge in some heavy petting with -- lord help us -- Fred MacMurray.
As Forties-era gumshoe Rigby Reardon, Martin finds himself ensnared in a web of intrigue from the moment he is hired by beautiful dame Juliet Forrest (a stunning Rachel Ward) to investigate the murder of her father, a noted philanthropist/scientist/cheesemaker. The labyrinthine plot, like that of Howard Hawks' Big Sleep, is essentially meaningless (OK, it's quite a bit more meaningless than the Hawks film, but you get my drift). Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid chiefly serves as a canvas for a send-up of private-eye flicks.
Moreover, it's a chance for Martin to spout dialogue so hard-boiled, it might as well be deviled: "All dames are alike. They reach down your throat and they grab your heart, pull it out and they throw it on the floor and they step on it with their high heels, they spit on it, shove it in the oven and cook the shit out of it. Then they slice it into little pieces, slam it on a hunk of toast and serve it to you and expect you to say, 'Thanks, honey -- it's delicious.'"
Clever and lovingly rendered, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid benefits mightily from the exquisite black-and-white cinematography of Michael Chapman (Raging Bull) and a suitably retro musical score by Miklós Rózsa. Their combined efforts help make this unique visual exercise relatively seamless.
The Lonely Guy
Watching The Lonely Guy with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, its attempt to marry Martin's comic sensibilities with genuine poignancy feels like a test run for the immeasurably more successful Roxanne in 1987 and L.A. Story in 1991. Although The Lonely Guy ultimately fails to capture that note of whimsy, it's still a respectable and interesting failure.
Martin stars as Larry Hubbard, a nebbishy greeting-card writer who is unceremoniously dumped by his girlfriend (Robynn Douglass) after he finds her in bed with another man. With suitcase in hand, Larry is thrust into the netherworld of New York City's lonely guys, a subculture where lovelorn men compensate by filling their apartments with dogs, ferns and cardboard cutouts of celebrities. But misery loves company, and so sad and lonely Larry finds a kindred spirit in the similarly sad and lonely Warren Evans (a wonderfully whiny Charles Grodin). A glimmer of hope arrives, however, when Larry meets an elusive love interest named Iris (Judith Ivey) and pens a book about the travails of lonely guys.
The filmmakers were a dependable lot that included director Arthur Hiller (Love Story, 1979's The In-Laws) and co-screenwriter Neil Simon, but these weren't folks particularly renowned for pushing boundaries. Subsequently, The Lonely Guy lacks the courage of its own conviction. It takes tentative steps toward being an affecting black comedy about modern-day despair, but it continually relies on eye-rolling gags to keep things from getting too edgy. The approach is sporadically successful. At its best, The Lonely Guy scratches at darkly promising possibilities, such as Larry discovering that the rooftops of New York are rife with the heart-wrenching screams of lonely guys yelling out for their exes. Similarly, we find that the Manhattan Bridge is a fog-shrouded hot spot for lonely-guy suicides.
More often than not, though, the stabs at comedy seem shoehorned in, especially a lame running joke in which Iris mistakes sneezes for orgasms (I told you it was lame). In the end, The Lonely Guy is a missed opportunity.
The two-disc package is in a keepcase with The Jerk on Disc One and Disc Two featuring Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid and The Lonely Guy.
The DVD quality is very good -- sharp and clear, with crisp details and colors. Only rarely is the picture, shown in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, marred by slight grain or softness of image.
Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid
A stunning print transfer, in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, showcases the art of Michael Chapman's cinematography. No complaints.
The Lonely Guy
The widescreen anamorphic 1.85:1 is a cut above its previous non-anamorphic DVD incarnation, but that doesn't fully acquit a picture quality saddled with some soft picture quality and grain in dimly lit scenes.
The sound is solid, if unremarkable, in Dolby Digital 5.1. Audio tracks and subtitles are available in English, Spanish and French.
Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid
The Dolby Digital 2.0 gets the job done, but it doesn't do much else. A French track is also available in 2.0.
The Lonely Guy
The Dolby Digital 5.1 makes almost no creative use of rear speakers, but the sound is wholly adequate for this dialogue-driven film. Audio tracks are in English and French, with subtitles in English for hearing-impaired viewers.
The Jerk contains the same soggy supplemental material that graced the film's "26th anniversary edition" DVD released last year. Learn How to Play "Tonight You Belong to Me" is just what the name says, a how-to lesson to play the tune on ukulele. The Lost Filmstrips of Father Carlos Las Vegas De Cordova (4:16) riffs off of a scene in the movie, where an earnest priest shows Navin grainy black-and-white footage of animal abuse in Mexico. It's mildly amusing stuff.
Also included in The Jerk are a theatrical trailer and production notes.
Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid and The Lonely Guy have only theatrical trailers in the way of bonus material.
Steve Martin fans will find this a worthwhile collection, but the dearth of extras is more than baffling. Still, the price is certainly right. The Jerk and Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid are great slices of early Steve, but The Lonely Guy is the definite odd man out (presumably, Warner Brothers' The Man with Two Brains was too wild and crazy for a Universal release).