Can it really be 14 years since Woody Allen savaged Los Angeles midway through Annie Hall? In a few classic satirical strokes, Allen unveiled an eerily zoned-out sci-fi megalopolis — a land of white bodysuits and mashed yeast, of Christmas lawn ornaments propped up proudly next to palm trees, of meditation freaks so desperate for inner peace that one of them, played by a pre-stardom Jeff Goldblum, actually phoned his guru in the middle of a party because (in his words) ”I forgot my mantra.”
L.A. Story, which was written by its star, Steve Martin, is an up-to-the- minute parody of the city’s inhumanly relaxed, into-the-future life-styles. But if this film is any indication, things haven’t changed much since the Annie Hall days. People continue to flex their sense of well-being like a new set of muscles, nobody sets foot on the sidewalk, and the cult of Surface — chic clothes, chic body, chic connections — still rules. The difference is that Martin ridicules L.A. from the inside: He loves this high-tech urban pleasure dome, the same way that Allen adores the soulful crazy quilt of Manhattan.
Martin plays Harris K. Telemacher, a ”wacky” TV weatherman who has nothing to forecast but how sunny it’s going to be tomorrow. The movie is about how he loses his ludicrous, show-biz-fringe job, comes under the influence of a mystical flashing highway sign (you heard me), and realizes that the only thing that can save him from being sucked under by the city’s relentless superficiality is Sara (Victoria Tennant), a visiting journalist from the London Times. Harris, like the standard Woody Allen hero, is a self-doubting romantic prone to anxious spasms of lust. Betrayed by his girlfriend (Marilu Henner), he finds himself dating Sandee (Sarah Jessica Parker), a smiley, tousle-haired young sex bunny who treats walking around as a form of higher * gymnastics and, when it comes to conversation, has passed beyond Valley Girl brainlessness into some brave new realm of Outer Valley vacuity.
L.A. Story would like to be a comedy of relationships, but the characters are too shallow for that. The movie is basically a series of airy satirical riffs — Martin’s laid-back, helium-fueled version of an early Allen comedy. And though a few of the gags are very funny (I’m still meditating on the line, ”I could never be a woman because I’d just stay home and play with my breasts all day”), most of the humor doesn’t quite explode. It lacks the cathartic element, the full-throttle clash of banality and absurdity, that gave the early Allen films their manic kick. Instead, L.A. Story has a fizzy-bubbly charm.
Martin understands that the infamous ”mellowness” of Los Angeles is really a fusion of fanatic hedonism and fanatic order. As he tells it, the city is a playpen ruled by control freaks, a world where any pleasure worth having is also worth regulating. In one scene, Harris tries to get a reservation at the eatery of the moment, L’Idiot, only to discover that he has to produce his entire financial statement. Once there, he’s offered his choice of dental floss — regular or diet. At the same time, Martin shows you that the city’s residents have a genuine rebellious streak, a lyrical zaniness. Even the relatively cautious Harris gets into the act: His hobby is roller-skating through art museums, which he considers a form of performance art.
The weak link in the movie is the romance. Victoria Tennant, who is married to Martin, has a talent for playing nasty girls (she was the uptight-but-sexy conniver in Martin’s All of Me), but here she’s required to be drably earnest. As Sara, she has a wounded gentility reminiscent of Julie Andrews, and she doesn’t spark anything — at least comedically — in Martin. When these two get together to the accompaniment of Enya’s religioso pop music, the soul-saving romance stuff is laid on awfully thick. The trouble is, nothing about this couple is particularly rooted in Los Angeles. The love affair has a bland, generic feel.
What’s more, the picture lacks verve. L.A. Story doesn’t have the lickety-split forward momentum that can spin you past the rough spots in a picture by Woody Allen, the Marx Brothers, or the Naked Gun boys. Martin, who supplies the rather doleful narration, certainly wins your empathy, but he spends too much time reining himself in. He plays Harris as the Gloomy Gus of La-La Land, someone who can’t seem to master the ways of this most synthetic, absurd, and surreally seductive of American cities. L.A. Story would have been funnier and more exhilarating if Martin had admitted that, in his wild-and-crazy way, he really belongs there.