Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The release of both Nightcrawler (to theaters) and Thom Andersen’s seminal essay film Los Angeles Plays Itself (to Blu-ray) has us thinking back on other films about the City Of Angels.
L.A. Story (1991)
The Angelenos of L.A. Story are adrift and in need of guidance. They seek it through high colonics and personal shoppers, through jabbering brunch companions and the weather reports of “wacky” meteorologist Harris K. Telemacher (Steve Martin). But Harris has them all beat, because he knows there’s only one force that dictates all activity in Los Angeles, and that’s traffic. (It certainly isn’t the weather, which is so dependably mild and sunny that Harris can pre-tape his weekend forecasts.) But when his girlfriend’s Mercedes craps out on the freeway, Harris is introduced to the one guru his so-called friends would never think to seek out: a traffic-reporting electronic billboard.
This unnamed, flash-bulb sage is but one of the many surreal flourishes of Martin’s screenplay, the story of a man, a woman, and a city as seen through the hazy, smog-damaged filter of director Mick Jackson. The film’s singular vision of the city combines the POVs of two L.A. emigrants: Martin, who grew up in communities neighboring Los Angeles, and Jackson, who came to Hollywood after a successful stint in British television. Jackson, the toast of the BBC who’d wind up directing Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner in his next feature, has his outsider status split in two and represented by a pair of British divorcees, one (Richard E. Grant) who outwardly loathes his adopted hometown and one (Victoria Tennant) who’s taken by its mystique while visiting on assignment for a London newspaper.
That makes sense, seeing as Tennant’s Sara is the Annie Hall of the picture; she even has the eccentric sense of haberdashery to match. Though Martin and Tennant were married at the time of production, their on-screen romance fails to truly pop amid fluorescent early-’90s fashions and the gloriously broad satire of the era’s art and restaurant scenes. (A joke about the trendiest restaurant in town finally lands when its name is written out: L’Idiot.) While the film is something of a West Coast rejoinder to Woody Allen’s Manhattan love stories, it works harder to appreciate the highbrow prestige and the lowbrow charms of its setting; not for nothing does the opening montage lift iconic hot-dog stand Tail O’ The Pup to the elevation of the angels. The film’s “Los Angeles as adult amusement park” presentation is ideal for a star whose first job in showbiz involved selling guidebooks at Disneyland.
L.A. Story’s slice of Los Angeles is particularly bourgeoisie, but as a midlife-crisis film from formerly idealistic baby boomers (see also: the similarly flawed, similarly fascinating Hook, released at the opposite end of 1991), it’s at least aware of how absurd this new-age bourgeoisie lifestyle is. The preeminent source of spiritual advice here is a light-up sign, after all. Like the city it depicts, L.A. Story’s appeal is all on the surface—but what a surface it is.
Availability: L.A. Story is available for rent or purchase on Amazon. It’s also on Blu-ray and DVD, which can be obtained through Netflix or your local video store or library.