I re-watched this after ordering a DVD from Amazon. I have not seen it since the first time 30 years ago today. I now see why. It is not a bad film, it just isn’t very good and the jokes change tone all over the place. There are times that the story means to be sadly knowing, and other times when it is absurdly over the top. Even when the jokes seem to be overdone, the actors are playing it so low key that it is hard to get into the spirit of the film.
Steve Martin broke out as a comedy presence on SNL and in the concert arenas of the late seventies. His first starring movie was “The Jerk” which was clearly ridiculous but also incredibly funny. It was also a huge success. In fact throughout the 1980s Martin was a critical and financial success. The one film of his that did not seem to catch on was this one. It had the smallest box office of any of his movies at the time and of all the films he has appeared in, it is near the bottom when it comes to ticket sales. Of course box office does not equal quality but the inverse is not automatically true either. So this is a small film that appears to have been lost over time, and it is not really missed.
Martin plays Larry Hubbard, a milquetoast would be writer, who is trapped in a dead end job writing greeting cards. He returns home one day to discover that his girlfriend is a serial cheater. In fact, looking at the poster, I don’t remember his character riding a bike in the movie so maybe that is a reference to the girlfriend played by Robyn Douglas. You know, she’s the town bicycle that everybody rides. Larry is barely out the door when she moves on from the one guy she stoops right in front of Larry (he is so timid he doesn’t really notice until it is pointed out to him) to a whole rock band that she is also destined to dump by the next scene. Now the idea that a guy is so mild mannered that he would be blind to what a strumpet he is living with is funny. That opening sequence sets up the absurd humor of the movie and tells us we can’t really take any of this seriously. That would be alright except that the movie also has a serious side to it, and those two points mix in an uncomfortable way.
As Larry tries to get his life together again, he discovers that he is not the only “Lonely Guy” out there. He befriends sad sack Warren, played by the droll Charles Grodin. The two have some things in common, but mostly because the script says so. Warren is sad by nature, Larry is outgoing and sunny despite his bad luck. That’s one of the problems here, the jokes apply when the screenwriters want them to but not when the characters may deserve them to apply. It was very inconsistent in how we are supposed to feel about the so called “Lonely Guys”. Is their pain self inflicted and therefore something that we can laugh at as the causes are revealed? Or are they tragic victims that we should pity and then are asked to laugh at? I was dissatisfied with the inability of the story to keep the tone consistent. “The Jerk” was absurdest too, but it was always absurd. You knew where you stood.
The two scenes that I remembered from my seeing this thirty years ago were clever riffs on the feeling of isolation that the lonely guy might have. When Larry enters a posh restaurant and asks for a table for one, he is made to feel the center of unwanted attention and the whole sequence ends with him acknowledging the circumstances and politely asking that they change, and then they do. You wonder if it is that simple why doesn’t he just step out of the scene like that all the time?
The other scene that I remembered was the moment in desperation that Larry goes up on the roof and calls out the name of the woman he is trying to connect with. One a series of other apartment building in New York, other lonely guys are doing the same thing. It sounds like the cry of dogs to one another in their secret language, only we now know what it is that they are all crying for.
Suicide has been used for humorous purposes in a lot of films. In fact two other 80s movies pop into my head that used a suicide attempt for a joke. In “Ishtar”, Dustin Hoffman is humiliated by the intervention of his friend played by Warren Beatty. In “Lethal Weapon” suicidal cop Martin Riggs played by Mel Gibson, takes a suicidally desperate man over the edge of a building to a visual joke. In the “Lonely Guy” one of the bridges running into Manhattan becomes a meeting place for characters who are thinking of offing themselves but they politely step back and let those who have stopped thinking and are ready to do it have first crack at the railing. Is it silly, yes, but also a little sad and the movie wants you to be a little sad at times.
The romantic plot with Iris, played by Judith Ivey, is also disconcerting because she seems to know so much about how Larry feels but can’t quite commit. First they are anxious to get together and then she wants them to be apart. She is supposed to have a parallel condition I suppose but it was never clear why she retreats. It all just feels arbitrary to make another joke or to string the story along for a few more minutes. Part of the problem may be the director. Arthur Hiller had a successful career but never seemed more than just a competent manager of the film. “Love Story” is his most successful film and you know that it was not a stylish film, it was mostly a film that reached key emotions because of the story and the actors. His three films before this were “Romantic Comedy” which no one remembers, “Author!, Author!” which people do remember but not fondly, and “Making Love” a film about homosexual infidelity told with good taste (in other words, no one remembers it either). They are all blah and unfortunately so is “The Lonely Guy”.
I recall Siskel and Ebert reviewing the movie but I did not have any idea what their verdict was. I found Roger Ebert’s review and it was not a happy one. He really did not care for Martin as an actor at all. Over the years his attitude adjusted a bit but his dislike of Martin is a key feature of the review and since this project is supposed to be historical and not just critical you might want to read it yourself.
For me there are some amusing pieces but the film never comes together. If you have to see all of Steve Martin’s films you will probably enjoy having this in the back catalog, but it is never going to be a movie that you plan an evening around, and certainly not a date, unless you want to risk being a lonely guy yourself.
[My former colleague at Fogs Movie Reviews, Morgan Lewis, reviewed this last year and liked it a lot more than I did. I read your review Morgan after I wrote mine, hope you don’t mind my linking it here for others.]