Celebrate Steve Martin’s birthday with these five intriguing flicks

On Aug. 14, Steve Martin turns 77 years young, and this “wild and crazy guy” earned a dreamlike career in stand-up, stage, television, music, and movies.  This Renaissance man has a gift for connecting with audiences of all ages – as evidenced by his generations of fans – and hey, Steve plays a mean banjo as well.  To celebrate the man’s birthday, let’s look back at five movies from his celebrated repertoire.  Rather than choose from his most famous films, like “The Jerk” (1979), “All of Me” (1984), “Three Amigos!” (1986), “Planes, Trains, & Automobiles” (1987), “Roxanne” (1987), “Parenthood” (1989), and “Father of the Bride” (1991), here are five more intriguing flicks that are must-see movies for every Martin fan.

Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr (Steve Martin) in “The Man with Two Brains”

“The Man with Two Brains” (1983) – Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr (Martin) is the world’s greatest brain surgeon, and to boot, he perfected the cranial screw-top method for his operations which works as you might imagine.  Although the good doctor’s career soars, his love life plummets after the death of his wife, but he inexplicably communicates – through telepathy – with a human brain that sits in a jar…and they fall in love.  What? 

Director Carl Reiner’s kooky comedy – which Steve co-wrote – will fry your synapses with dozens of laugh-out-loud setups, payoffs, and visual gags, like Dr. Hfuhruhurr arguing with a 5-year-old girl or leaping lizards appearing after our hero says, “Leaping lizards.”  Martin’s contagious enthusiasm and steadfast commitment to the adolescent material is glorious as Carl, Steve, and co-writer George Gipe constantly and ironically avoid cerebral puns.  Co-star Kathleen Turner plays a spouse so malicious that she makes her turn as Matty Walker, the manipulative vamp in “Body Heat” (1981), look like June Cleaver, and oh, a serial killer – who injects his victims with window cleaner – is on the loose.  Yes, “The Man with Two Brains” is Martin’s wildest and craziest movie!

Harris K. Telemacher (Martin) and SanDeE* (Sarah Jessica Parker) in “L.A. Story”

“L.A. Story” (1991) – Director Mick Jackson and Martin lay out Los Angeles’ famous and infamous eccentricities under 72 degrees and blue skies, and amongst posh lunches, freeway gridlock, and a stationary bike park.  This romantic comedy celebrates and spoofs the City of Angels through the eyes of television weatherman Harris K. Telemacher (Martin), who feels a bit lost in his career and current relationship.  However, a rogue road sign mysteriously disables Harris’ girlfriend’s car and then flashes words of advice.  It’s not just the sign speaking, as it declares, “L.A. wants to help you.” 

Martin’s script leads Harris towards a potentially right path on the Left Coast by encouraging our protagonist to spark a romance with a newly arrived Brit, Sara McDowel (Victoria Tennant), who is visiting for work.  Sara’s naivete allows Martin’s Harris to highlight La-La Land’s peculiarities through a tour of urban and suburban self-deprecation.  Tennant and Martin were married in real life, but on-screen Sara has some romantic competition when a bubbly bombshell named SanDeE* (Sarah Jessica Parker, and yes, that’s her character’s name) shows sunny interest in this weatherman.  Now, Harris might be twice her age, but he claims she’s not that young.  “She’ll be 27 in four years.”

Jonas Nightengale (Martin)

“Leap of Faith” (1992) – “Manipulators are sneaky.  I’m obvious,” Jonas Nightengale (Martin) says to his friend Jane Larson (Debra Winger).  Jane is Jonas’ confidant, but she’s also the Chief Operating Officer of his massive traveling operation.  He’s a faith healer with a sizable staff, a choir of dozens, a bus, and a couple of tractor trailers.  This caravan circles the country to seek calculated spots to set up their massive circus tent as Jonas spouts the word of God.  However, Jonas’ prime religion is money.  He’s a fraud, a con man, and although IMDb labels “Leap of Faith” as a Comedy/Drama/Romance, it’s primarily a drama that packs a wallop in the third act. 

Here’s another surprise:  Martin doesn’t play Jonas for laughs, and that’s all by design.  In front of adoring crowds of Christians, Jonas is more animated than a kid on Christmas morning, a Powerball winner, and a pro wrestler winning the title all wrapped up in one.  However, behind the curtain, he’s a pragmatic, cynical swindler.  However, when this immoral preacher and his troupe stop in Rustwater, Kansas (pop. 22,000), a town down on its luck, will Jonas find a heart?  Director Richard Pearce’s film – released a few years after televangelists Tammy and Jim Bakker fell on hard times – also stars Liam Neeson, Meat Loaf, and a 25-year-old Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Holy moly!

Joe Ross (Campbell Scott) and Jimmy Dell (Martin) in “The Spanish Prisoner”

“The Spanish Prisoner” (1997) – David Mamet writes and directs an absorbing mystery with more twists than a jumbo box of Twizzlers that leaves its lead (Campbell Scott) and movie audience dizzy.  Joe Ross (Scott) is an engineer or mathematician of some sort who developed “the process” that could make millions and millions for Mr. Klein’s (Ben Gazzara) company.  Joe is Klein’s most vital employee, but when the boss doesn’t guarantee a payday for him, Mr. Ross feels used.  Where can he turn for help? 

Well, Joe meets Jimmy Dell (Martin), an affluent socialite, and his new friend asserts that he can recommend a lawyer to protect the 30-something upstart’s interests.  Sure, that makes sense.  What could go wrong?  Although, Jimmy did offer Joe one hundred dollars for his camera when he inadvertently snapped a photo of him in the Caribbean during their initial encounter.  Geez, that’s strange.  Well, there’s nothing odd about Mamet’s whip-smart film, which includes Felicity Huffman, Ed O’Neill, Ricky Jay, and a winning performance by Rebecca Pidgeon, who has clearly mastered the girl-next-door persona.  No, Steve isn’t donning an arrow through his head or bunny ears here, but he should proudly wear a “The Spanish Prisoner” pin on his lapel for his convincing work as Jimmy Dell.

Mirabelle Buttersfield (Claire Danes) and Ray Porter (Martin) in “Shopgirl”

“Shopgirl” (2005) – Mirabelle Buttersfield (Claire Danes) is a 20-something Vermonter who moved to Los Angeles to find her way.  She’s a hopeful artist, but – for now – Mirabelle pays the bills by driving back and forth in her blue pickup nearly every day to Saks Fifth Avenue.  She works in the accessories department and is an earnest, lonely soul, but before you can say, “Let’s open up a book on a slow Saturday night,” two men ask her out.  A directionless, clueless slacker (Jason Schwartzman) and a wealthy businessman (Martin) vie for Mirabelle’s affections in this love triangle based on Martin’s 2000 novella of the same name. 

Like, Jonas in “Leap of Faith” and Jimmy in “The Spanish Prisoner”, Steve is playing off-type, and here, he gives a subdued, distant performance.  Ray (Martin) is interested in an affair, perhaps long-term, but with no attachments.  He’s about 30 years older than Mirabelle, so he’s done the math, but Ray otherwise treats her with kindness and care.  More like courtesy and care.  Meanwhile, Jeremy (Schwartzman) struggles to scrape up change for the laundromat and could use a team of maids for his apartment.  Schwartzman delivers frequent moments of comic relief while Martin plays it straight, but Danes’ Mirabelle is the film’s most compelling character.  We watch her process her current circumstances with two male extremes, as she and the narrative speak plenty about age, social status, longing for a fruitful career, and establishing a meaningful relationship.

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