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By Adrienne Martini

MARCH 2, 1998: 

Pennies From Heaven

D: Herbert Ross (1981)
with Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, Christopher Walken, Jessica Harper, Vernel Bagneris, John McMartin

Dead Men Don't
Wear Plaid

D: Carl Reiner (1982)
with Steve Martin, Rachel Ward, Carl Reiner, Reni Santoni, George Gaynes

The Man With Two Brains

D: Carl Reiner (1983)
with Steve Martin, Kathleen Turner, Paul Benedict, David Warner, James Cromwell

During his Let's Get Small days, Steve Martin used to wax rhapsodic about his banjo. You just can't be sad, he would intone, when you're playing one. Then, of course, he would wander off on a fifteen-minute bit about banjos, plucking and grinning the whole time, proving beyond all doubt that a banjo is the wrong instrument on which to write a sad song. Can't be done.

Young Steve Martin was a banjo. It's impossible to imagine him pulling off great soul-searing drama. He just carries around with him some great aura of goofiness, as if there is a great cosmic joke that is known only in his mind that he finds extraordinarily amusing and that will be revealed when the time is right. Perhaps it's the arrangement of his face, or the uncoordinated coordination of his lanky frame, but it is impossible to imagine that the film world in which his characters live will contain any kind of tragedy.

Which may be why Pennies From Heaven is such an odd little movie for Martin. Set in 1934, in post-depression Chicago, Pennies tries to tell the story of Arthur, a traveling sheet-music salesman who is riddled with great angst. His marriage is going to hell, largely because he wants a wife who is more sexually adventurous and he subsequently hooks up with a small town school teacher with a deeply repressed wild streak, lusciously played by Peters. A series of dead-end adventures follow, all oddly punctuated with Dream On-like snippets of happy-go-lucky musical numbers that replace character development and disperse any rising tension. But it is the musical numbers that make the movie worth watching. Martin and Peters make a great singing and dancing team and the film comes alive whenever they start tapping. Christopher Walken does a malevolently hysterical strip-tease that is as funny as it is disturbing. Pennies From Heaven looks gorgeous, like a moving Edward Hopper painting, despite the fact that Martin just can't sustain the inner turmoil that needs to be the driving force of Arthur.

It's alive... alive, I say! Oops, wrong movie, although you might be better off with Weird Science than The Man With Two Brains, Try Steve Martin in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid or Pennies From Heaven instead.
But Martin's inner giddiness makes Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid a classic. This loose film is more than a spoof of the hard-boiled noir of the Forties and Fifties; it is a tribute to the wonderful memories these films created in a generation. Dead Men is a postmodernist's dream because the plot is simply spliced-together clips with enough script around them to justify the whole exercise. Well, enough script and Martin's wonderful deadpan antics, that subtly wink at the sheer amount of fun he and the rest of the cast is having, playing characters ripped straight from celluloid. That much joy could be justification for almost anything. This is a movie, however, that doesn't need much vindication. Sure, it's not great art that speaks to the human condition or some such elitist nonsense, even though it does confirm some undeniable attraction that straight men have for breasts. It is a rip-roaring comedy that whisks you into a black & white world where Humphrey Bogart and Joan Crawford still reign supreme. While technology has advanced by leaps and bounds in the last 16 years, the blending of old and new footage still works in this early attempt. Granted, the plot is silly - down-on-his-luck detective is hired by mysterious, zaftig woman to discover why her crazed-scientist father was murdered - and the jokes are equally silly, but the whole thing is carried off by Martin's charm and inherently jocular persona.

Even the most upbeat banjo tune can quickly rub raw the happiest of people if it goes on for way too long, played by a well-natured fool who doesn't seem to realize that the audience has had all of the silliness they can stand. True as well for even the hardiest of Martin fans. While The Man With Two Brains was written by the same team that produced Dead Men, the two really can't be compared. Dead Men was full of potty jokes, but they were tempered with an even-handed wit that cut through the inanity. Not so for Two Brains. Here, Martin and company turn the proceedings into an unfunny farce, flinging out silly jokes at the rate of an Airplane movie in the desperate hope that something will stick. While some do find their mark, it seems to be more the result of a happy accident than any real attempt on the filmmaker's part. This is not to say that there isn't some ineffable quality that still makes Steve Martin watchable. His every gesture seems to be calculated for effect. Expressions stream across his face at a speed that almost makes you motion-sick. Watching him walk across a room or jump out of an elevator screams volumes about the burbles of goofiness that lurk beneath his skin. Unfortunately, there just isn't quite enough else going on in this boy-meets-girl, boy-hates-girl, boy-meets-disembodied-brain-and-transplants-it-into-first-girl's-body flick to create any real dramatic action. You just don't care how it ends as long as it does. Or maybe the tension is leached out by Joel Goldsmith's constant bad Eighties synth music that underscores almost every scene, which wears on the nerves worse than any banjo ever could. - Adrienne Martini

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