My blood ran cold

October 30, 2008

 

My blood ran cold at a screening at a New York multiplex on a recent evening, when I spotted a poster for a movie marked “Coming Soon.”

 

I recognized the top half of Steve Martin’s face, then realized he was peeking out of a footprint – a panther’s footprint – make that a pink panther’s footprint.

 

“Pink Panther 2”? Arrgh. My heart sank. Steve, what were you thinking?

 

On second thought, I know exactly what he was thinking: “$$$$$$$$.”

 

Which occasioned thoughts of the generation of stand-up comics of which Martin was a part – and just what a crashing disappointment each of them has been when it comes to their motion-picture output.

I put Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy in the same category as Martin. All three burst forth as comedians, who used TV as a launching pad in the late 1970s and early 1980s. All three had early big hits. And all three have subsequently built movie careers that are long on huge paydays and far too short on huge laughs. 

 

(The discussion of their 1990s’ heirs – the Jim Carrey/Adam Sandler/Will Ferrell nexus – will be saved for another day.)

 

 

 

 

It can be argued that Eddie Murphy has never starred in a great comedy. Going further, I’d offer that his entire film career is based on two incredibly mediocre movies (“48 HRS” and “Beverly Hills Cop”) that were huge hits at the time but which, in retrospect, offer very few genuine laughs and a lot of surprisingly lame shtick.

 

Yet he continues to crank out things like ”Daddy Day Care,” “Meet Dave” and “Norbit.” Who still thinks this guy is funny?

 

Murphy has been at his comedic best when he’s in support: Think “Bowfinger.” Think the “Shrek” movies.

 

He nearly redeemed himself with “Dreamgirls,” in which he actually gave a solid dramatic performance. Thankfully, he lost to Alan Arkin at the Oscars that year. If he’d won, it would have validated an entire career based on awful taste in material and middling (or worse) movies.

 

Unfortunately, the Academy had no such compunction about giving Robin Williams an Oscar for 1997’s “Good Will Hunting.” But Williams – who can still bring it as a comedian – has rarely given a performance as the star of a film that offered the kind of laughter that his stand-up act offers. I’d single out “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “The Birdcage” (and perhaps “Aladdin,” in which animation came close to capturing the inventive mania of his on-stage persona).

 

Instead, Williams has offered himself up in dreck like “Jack,” “Toys,” “Flubber” and “Bicentennial Man.” The nadir may have been “Patch Adams” – at least until he made “RV.” Williams succumbed to Jerry Lewis syndrome: the belief that the sad clown is the most touching and that playing serious, even twistedly dark, roles (in films like “One Hour Photo” and “Insomnia”) would bring him the kind of cred that comedy never would.

 

Except that, as the saying goes, dying is easy – comedy is hard.

 

Of the three, Steve Martin is the only one who has actually used his clout and his creativity to fashion his own work in a way that occasionally reveals the talent that made him a star in the first place. That’s because he’s the only one who has written scripts for himself – scripts that, inevitably, give him the best material to work with.

 

Sure, his writing can misfire; the stench of “Three Amigos” took years to dissipate. But Martin also wrote “Roxanne” and “L.A. Story” and “Bowfinger” and “Shopgirl.” And he’s written some exceptionally funny theater pieces: “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” and “The Underpants,” to name two.

 

Plus he has the good taste to pick his spots when playing smaller roles in other people’s films. Think of him in Lawrence Kasdan’s underrated “Grand Canyon,” David Mamet’s “The Spanish Prisoner” or the Tina Fey comedy, “Baby Mama.”

 

Is that enough to earn him forgiveness for such commercial drivel as the “Father of the Bride” movies, the “Cheaper by the Dozen” movies and now the “Pink Panther” series? Or such dross as “Sgt. Bilko,” “Bringing Down the House” and “The Out-of-Towners”? Almost.

 

Sure, a guy’s got to earn a living if he’s going to assemble a world-class art collection. And while I’ll never know, it’s got to be hard to turn down millions of dollars for a mere six or eight weeks’ work, even when you know you’re selling your soul in piece of shit that will clog video store shelves, Netflix queues and on-demand catalogs for years to come.

 

Martin has a thoughtful side, a side that can turn out a personal, funny book like “Born Standing Up.” Now if he can just shake his addiction to the kind of gigantic paychecks that extrude products like “Pink Panther 2” into the marketplace.

 

 

 

 

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