History has a way of righting itself when it comes to the arts. Sometimes it restores clarity and reminds us of the great things out there we had forgotten and sometimes things are going too well so it’ll regurgitate something we tried to forget. But there’s usually some sort of balance.
Occasionally something falls through the cracks.
Like The Lonely Guy
Now, it may strike some of you as odd to be talking about The Lonely Guy – a Steve Martin movie which is readily available on both Netflix Instant Watch and in various Steve Martin DVD value packs – in our Through the Cracks column. But to me that just says you’re either a big Martin fan, or more likely, you happen to remember when it came out in the theaters. But for the younger crowd, who weren’t seeing R rated movies in 1984 or weren’t even alive yet, and aren’t Steve Martin completests, The Lonely Guy isn’t on their radar. In fact, what prompted me to do this piece was the sheer number of self-professed Martin fans I’ve talked to in the past year who not only haven’t seen The Lonely Guy, but haven’t even heard of it. This is for them…
The Lonely Guy is based on the book The Lonely Guy’s Book of Life by Bruce Jay Friedman. The script was adapted by playwright Neil Simon, re-teaming once more with director Arthur Hiller, following their earlier successes like The Out-of-Towners (1970) and Plaza Suite (1971). Hiller’s biggest film was the 1970 schmaltzfest, Love Story, for which he got a Best Director nod, but the man also did Paddy Chayefsky’s The Hospital (1971),and a bunch of solid-to-great comedies, like The Americanization of Emily (Chayefsky again), Silver Streak (1976), and The In-Laws (1979). So don’t hold it against him.
The film tells the story of Larry Hubbard (Martin), a greeting card writer who discovers his girlfriend (the funny and sexy Robyn Douglass, whose career went through the cracks) in bed with another man. Now Larry is suddenly single, and discovers himself woefully unprepared for the new lifestyle. But Larry meets Warren (Charles Grodin), another sad sack who informs Larry that he is now a “Lonely Guy,” and fortunately Warren is an expert on the Lonely Guy way of life, and is a wealth of helpful advice. Buy a fern! Then, while pretending to excercise, Larry meets the serial divorcee Iris (Judith Ivey), and it is love at first sight. Only Larry loses her number. Can he find Iris again in New York City? Will he ever find love and happiness again?
The Lonely Guy is not an undeniably brilliant comic masterpiece, but it is very funny – done in Martin’s signature highbrow-lowbrow style that initially made him famous – and it has some amazing lines and gags. In tone and joke style/structure, the film completes Martin’s classic era of absurdist comedy, along with his masterwork The Jerk, and The Man With Two Brains and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. After The Lonely Guy Martin did the slightly less absurd comedy All Of Me, which opened up a new more mainstream avenue for Martin’s career, leading to films like Roxanne, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. What has always struck me as odd is that Two Brains and Dead Men have both endeared in public consciousness longer than Lonely Guy. But I’d argue that they are all of a comparable quality.
My theory is that The Lonely Guy‘s legacy was hurt by the fact that Martin’s early silly movies seemed to have their biggest impact on younger male audiences of the time (I am reminded of how much the nerds loved The Jerk on Freaks & Geeks). And unlike the other three classic era Martin films, The Lonely Guy‘s subject matter is decidedly in-jokey-adult in nature – breaks ups, being a lonely bachelor, trying to meet women.
But the movie is a goofy gas. In particular the first half, when Warren (Grodin steals every scene he is in) is walking Larry through the paces of being a Lonely Guy. Part of the film’s great humor comes from a certain level of truth. Warren tells Larry to get a dog, not because they are a “chick magnet” but because they provide company, they love you because that’s what dogs do – “Hitler had a dog. Went crazy for him.” The most iconic gag of the film also belongs to Warren, when he invites Larry to a party at his place, only for Larry to discover that the apartment is filled with cardboard cutouts of famous people (and one, depressingly, of Warren’s old girlfriend). Then, when the cops come to tell Warren to turn the music down, one of the officers lingers behind for a moment to ask where Warren got the cut-outs; you see, he’s a Lonely Guy too. All-in-all, the film is littered with great silly gags, like Larry’s therapist who makes Larry do his session through the callbox in the building’s entryway. Or this classic Martin bit when Larry discovers that Iris (who is 30), has been married 6 times:
Iris: Is that a lot?
Larry: Not really. That’s only 1 every 5 years.
Of course, as is generally the problem for a movie this silly, the actual romance can only play so deep when it is always played for laughs. But true to form, the movie does feature a delightfully stupid riff on the classic rom-com Hero Trying to Stop the Love Interest From Leaving or Getting Married climax, with Larry running on foot through New York traffic but behaving as though he’s a car (like stopping to pay at a tollbooth).
The Lonely Guy is on Instant Watch. If you haven’t seen it, check it out.
And I’ll leave you with some Struzan…