Saturday, November 9, 2013


A lonely man goes to a psychiatrist. The office is located in a   grimy tenement building in New York, the sort where neighbors lean out the window to yell at each other. The man finds the doctor's name on the rather unofficial looking building directory, and rings the buzzer, announcing his arrival.  But instead of being asked into the psychiatrist's office, he's made to wait outside and conduct the session through the building's intercom. The man doesn't seem to mind, for his life is often strange and sometimes cruel. People usually ignore him, so the chance to talk to someone, even through an intercom, is a ripe opportunity.

The scene is from The Lonely Guy (1984) a Steve Martin film that I'm always thankful to stumble across. I  think of it as a neglected classic.   Had it come out of Europe, it would've been hailed as a quirky masterpiece and played in art houses for six months.
Directed by Arthur Hiller, The Lonely Guy takes place in  an early 1980s New York that neither  Woody Allen or Marty Scorsese seemed to know about. It's a city of lonely men, dull afternoons in the park, and Sundays that stretch out interminably for those without a companion. There's a "lonely guy store" that sells cardboard cutouts of celebrities to make one's apartment feel more lively. Even the cops are lonely.  Martin plays Larry Hubbard, a greeting card writer who comes home one night to find his slutty girlfriend in bed with a man and a bottle of whipped cream. Heartbroken, Larry embarks on a new life as a single man. He takes advice from his friend Warren (Charles Grodin), a veteran of the single life, and is soon buying ferns for his apartment, a sure sign of lonely guydom.

Larry's efforts to find love border on heroic. When the fast talking shrew of a realtor finishes her spiel about the rules of the lease, he asks her on a date. She responds, "I'm a man." (I actually knew a woman who did this to a fellow; she was a bookstore clerk and he was a "lonely customer." I know this much: a woman has to really to hate a man to go to such lengths...)  Larry even resorts to jogging, hoping to meet a woman as he runs through the city. Since he's not a real jogger, he invests in a type of "bottled sweat" guaranteed to make him smell like a professional athlete. When he enters a health food restaurant, a woman says, "I thought Larry Bird just walked in."

The woman with the educated nose is Iris (Judith Ivey), a sweetheart who is everything Larry wants in a woman. Sadly, she turns out to be a neurotic who can't accept love. Frustrated by his failures, Larry  writes a book about being a lonely guy, which turns him into an overnight sensation. Now rich, he beds down everyone from a pair of Swedish twins to Dr. Joyce Brothers (all at once, as talk show host Merv Griffin watches and provides commentary!) But Larry is still lonely. He misses Iris.

As Larry, Martin conveys his loneliness best in scenes where he's perfectly still. The weight of his loneliness appears to hunch him over slightly. His brow is always furrowed, as if he's thinking all the time, debating whether his loneliness is just temporary, or perhaps his destiny.  It's when he decides to take action that the film jumps to a different speed,  such as in the scene when he notices Iris on a subway train. Grabbing a can of spraypaint from some hoodlums, he writes a note on the window, with instructions on where to meet him. "You're one bad backwards writer," says one of the thugs. 

The film isn't perfect. The decision to dress Martin as Charlie Chaplin for a costume party was pushing it, and some of the jokes fall flat. But much of it is just right, and the parts that work more than make up for the parts that don't. I like how Larry  goes to a public ladies' room with Iris and sits in the next stall because she has abandonment issues. I love how she happens to keep popping up in his life, as if fate keeps pushing them together. I also love when he thinks he's lost her, and he goes up to his rooftop to shout her name; on every rooftop in the city there's another lonely guy, and then another, screaming out the names of their own lost loves, until the night air is filled with desperate pleas of "Iris! Louise! Denise! I miss you! Come back!"  On the surface it's a decent sight gag, but I've always thought it was a very poignant scene about the folly of love.

Perhaps more than anything else in the film, I love Charles Grodin as the hapless Warren. Martin and Grodin have several scenes where they're just sitting on a park bench, talking about their day, what they had for lunch, or wondering why homeless men always have full heads of hair. These scenes are amazing. They  predate the kind of low key, awkward comedy that would come many years later in shows like The Office, and even Seinfeld.  At one point Martin is so bored he thinks about going home and taking a nap. "I hate naps," says Grodin, explaining that waking up once a day is bad enough.

Grodin makes a perfect foil for Martin. When appearing in films with other big time comics, Martin tended to play the straight man, either out of generosity, or from knowing that his brand of comedy was like a high wire act, and wouldn't automatically mesh with other styles. He began as a stand up comic, a solo act; fighting for laughs was probably not in his DNA. Grodin, as dry as sand, fits so well into Martin's groove that one wishes they'd made more films together.

Judith Ivy, in her first film role, is soft and understanding as Iris, a woman who knows Larry is perfect for her yet fears they can't last as a couple.  Singer Steve Lawrence has a funny cameo as a swinging Lothario who nearly takes Iris for himself. The musical score is actually quite beautiful,  and there are some nice songs over the opening and closing credits. The songs might have been better suited to a more conventional romantic film like Arthur or Starting Over, but that's also what makes The Lonely Guy so intriguing for me - nothing really fits together.

Hiller, whose career encompassed everything from comedy to horror to romance (including the ultimate 1970s romantic schlockbuster, Love Story),  aimed for a strange mix of the goofy and the poignant for The Lonely Guy. Some would argue that the two styles shouldn't be mixed, but I think he created something unique. At the time, though, the film underperformed at the box office, was hailed as a death knell for Martin, and was butchered in the press. Roger Ebert called it,  "a dreary slog through morose situations, made all the worse by Martin's deadpan delivery, his slightly off-balance sense of timing, and his ability to make you cringe with his self-debasing smarminess." A Milwaukee Journal critic noted that Martin's comic aura "was wearing so thin, it's becoming an engineering challenge to measure it."

Martin was in the middle of a rough spell. After the massive success of his comedy albums, his iconic performances on Saturday Night Live, and the surprising success of  The Jerk, he went into a kind of tailspin that lasted four years. He'd always approached comedy like he was experimenting in a lab; once he became famous, he began experimenting with how much he could pull back. He was trying to shed his doofus image as early as 1981 when he puzzled his fans with Pennies From Heaven, an unusually somber  piece where he played a Depression era sheet music salesman. Then came two comedies, The Man With Two Brains and Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, neither of which connected. They weren't goofy enough for his cult of stoner fans, but they were too weird for the mainstream audience.  By the summer of 1984, though, Martin appeared in All of Me, a successful film full of physical comedy that paved the way for what would be his golden period where he won over the critics, regained his audience, and appeared in at least one certified classic: Planes, Trains, and AutomobilesThe formula seemed to be this: more shtick; less pathos; and don't show Martin as too much of a loser.

The Lonely Guy remains one of Martin's unheralded films. Shortly after its disappointing release, Martin sat for an interview with The Times-Post News Service and referred to The Lonely Guy as "sort of a stinker."  It's still a hard sell today, and people looking for a comedy from that era are probably better off with Animal House. The Lonely Guy, you see, isn't gutbustingly funny. But if you are tuned into its unique vibe, and pay attention to the dialoge between Martin and Grodin, you'll find that it gets under your skin, like a Jules Feiffer cartoon, or an episode of Bullwinkle. It was the unevenness in tone that baffled critics, even the rare few who liked the film.

The problem could've been the involvement of  so many writers. The screenplay is credited to Ed Weinberger and Stan Daniels (based on a book by Bruce Jay Friedman, adapted by Neal Simon).  Many of the jokes and set pieces come from Friedman's book.  Weinberger and Daniels had great backgrounds as TV writers (The Mary Tyler Moore Show; Taxi), and Simon, of course, was a prolific writer of plays and films. Martin and Grodin were also writers. Could they have offered their own input? Could that be why their scenes together seem brilliant, while the rest of the movie feels like a broad comedy? With so many writers chipping away, it's a miracle that the film retains any sort of charm or coherency.

Here's what I think happened. Someone read Friedman's book and thought it could be made into a film along the lines of those urbane  episodic comedies of the 1960s, such as What a Way To Go, or A Guide for The Married Man. Simon doesn't even mention the film in his memoirs, which makes me think he didn't put a major effort into it. Weinberger and Daniels tried to give it a sitcom feel, but with Martin attached, there was a compulsion to add some zany stuff. Meanwhile, Martin had his own ideas, and wanted to play it straight.

Janet Maslin in The New York Times noted that the film, "tries a little bit of everything, and winds up with an air of messy desperation." She blamed Hiller for "working against the material's essential gloom. Whenever the film tries for sprightliness, it stumbles. When it gives in to the basic misery of Larry and his situation, though, it begins to make some sort of morose comic sense."

Maslin's comments remind me of a scene where Larry talks to his pillow, imagining it's Iris. He hugs it and kisses it, and promises to never leave. Martin plays the scene with such earnestness that most viewers might think it's cornball; the truth is that it's so naked that it's difficult to watch. Very few actors, never mind comedians, would aim for such plain-faced honesty in a scene. Unfortunately, in some earlier scenes Martin is downright moronic, as if there'd been a contractual obligation requiring at least a little of his old comic persona.  "After a while," wrote critic Douglas D. Armstrong, "Arthur Hiller's droll project begins to feel like a chaotic struggle between serious and silly, or between intelligent and stupid."

The film's unabashed masterstroke, however,  where Hiller and company get everything just right, are the scenes involving the Manhattan bridge, where dozens of lonely guys gather every night and leap to their deaths. Warren tries it once - Grodin is exceptional here, utterly defeated by the depth of his loneliness - only to be talked down by Larry and Iris. Deciding to live, Warren wanders off into the foggy night. The sounds of men screaming as they drop into the ocean has a vaguely Monty Pythonesque effect, but not even their screams can dampen the sight of Warren  vanishing into the fog, as desolate as any character in film history. Later, when Larry attempts suicide, it's Warren who comes to his rescue. "Oh, Larry..." Warren says, with great sadness and disappointment in his voice. He seems to be eulogizing every lonely guy who has ever existed.

The film rebounds, however. Larry ends up with Iris.  Warren finds a mate, too. They all walk along the bridge together, vanishing into the fog, with bodies still dropping into the water below.  Whether you think they all live happily ever after is up to you; I happen to think they're all too neurotic to be happy.  

The upbeat ending feels odd for other reasons, especially since the film's underlying message seems to be that life is cheap. People in this movie trade mates like they're changing socks. Iris had six husbands; Steve Lawrence's character had seven girlfriends at once; Larry's ex-girlfriend trades in her oily dancer for a rock band, and the entire band eventually commits suicide; another character becomes gay; coupling seems random; nothing amounts to much.  There's a lot of death in the film, too, and not just the suicides. Even the greeting cards Larry writes are  consolation cards about deceased house pets. Late in the film Larry imagines himself dead, his stiff old body hauled out of his apartment and thrown into a garbage truck.  If for no other reason, Larry needs Ivy to take his mind from such thoughts. Ivy, of course, needs Larry to sit next to her in the ladies' room.


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