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Film Commentary: For Aging Comedians, Timing Is Everything

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Older comics don’t die, they just become serious actors. If you don’t believe it, just check out Shopgirl, the Steve Martin movie based on his novella of the same name. It’s the latest in a line of movies from aging funny men who’ve turned introspective … with the help of younger women. That’s not an angry feminist slam, although I have been accused in the past of being an angry feminist. I would argue vociferously that I was just angry and that my ire usually is directed at ignorant stereotyping and belittling of both genders. But I digress. Back to the movie.

I enjoyed Shopgirl and the performances of Martin, Claire Danes and Jason Schwartzman. The three struggle to make personal connections, but they seem to always be a bit off, proving that in life as well as Martin’s original field of comedy, timing is everything.

Shopgirl has a sense of wistful detachment that helps move the film beyond the typical Hollywood love triangle. In that regard, it must be compared to Lost in Translation in which another 50ish comedian-turned-thespian, Bill Murray, shared an intimate, but ultimately unfulfilled relationship with the younger Scarlett Johansson. Again, that complicated matter of timing comes into play. (Murray also had other mistimed cinematic relationship issues earlier this year in Broken Flowers, but his leading ladies in that film were closer to his age.)

So if art is a reflection of our lives, what are these movies trying to say to us? That older comics don’t die, they just become serious actors? Well, that certainly is the case for Martin and Murray, as they’ve put in fine performances in these small film gems. Maybe Hollywood thinks we lose our senses of humor as we age (and that’s why movies cater to a younger crowd)? Well, that unfortunately does seem to be the perspective of some studio monkeys in suits, but I beg to differ. I think we just find different things amusing, if not laugh out loud funny. Like good wine, we appreciate a subtlety that can occasionally knock us for a bit of a loop after a glass or two.

I think the real message in all these films is that it is damn hard to find, much less maintain, personal connections in today’s hectic world. It becomes even harder as we age and have had years of relationship faux pas that serve only to make us more wary of taking yet another potentially wrong step. And while each of us, male or female, can relate to some degree to the social ineptness of Martin’s Ray Porter and Murray’s Don Johnston, we also can recognize the danger of not trying, especially as we age and our time for such connections grows scarcer and therefore more dear. In this unstoppable race against time, those of us of a certain age more fully realize that when you totally surrender the chance of intimacy because of fear of it, you truly do lose the laughter in your soul.

So let’s thank Steve Martin and Bill Murray for having delivered this message, and also for showing us so eloquently in their separate but similar films that their timing, both on the big screen and in real life, remains impeccable. Those of us who, in our youth, appreciated the belly laughs these men can deliver (a Martin concert almost a quarter century ago, replete with arrow through the head, balloon animals and plenty of “Well, excuuuuusssseee me” comments remains one of my best collegiate memories), are thankful that these funny guys, while unable to maintain relationships in films, have found a way to remain connected to those of us in their vast audience of fans.

Some film side notes: Not only do Shopgirl and Lost in Translation share common themes, they share several acting/production credits. Schwartzman was in Rushmore with Murray, who shared the screen with Johannson in Lost in Translation. And Shopgirl director Anand Tucker was producer of Girl with a Pearl Earring, another film about an ill-timed relationship between an older man and young woman played by Johansson. It’s not quite Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, but the Hollywood incestuousness here is intriguing.

This commentary appeared in a slightly different form as “Cinematic shopping” on the tax blog Don’t Mess With Taxes. Yep, movies and taxes all in one blog. Go figure.

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  • http://gratefuldread.net Natalie Davis

    Nice points made here. Steve Martin proved his acting chops in 1987′s Roxanne, a modern take on Cyrano de Bergerac in which Martin’s older, firefighting oddball character did end up with the girl (Daryl Hannah). Bill Murray continues to amaze me with each of his performances; I so dug Rushmore and thinking about that goodbye kiss between him and Scarlet Johannson still makes me cry. How I wish the timing had been right for those two… Knowing that Martin won’t wind up with Danes has broken my heart already, and I have yet to see Shopgirl. Man, I can’t wait. (God, I love a tearjerker with gentle laughs.)

  • Bliffle

    I’m not tempted to see “Shopgirl”, based on what I’ve read so far. Sounds shallow and precious, to me. I didn’t like “Lost In Translation” much, either. “Broken Flowers” was slightly better, if only for the presence of the estimable Tilda Swinton, who made an indelible impression in “Orlando”.

    These thin movies made from short stories are doomed, I’m afraid. The effect of a movie is to thin out the texture of the story in favor of visualization, and while that can work pretty good for novels (instead of Tolstois lengthy narrative of battles we get short broad armies of extras) it reduces short stories to mere wispiness.

    If you like Short Stories with atmosphere and punch I’d recommend “Stories” by T C Boyle. There’s about 60 stories in 700 pages (and only about $12 from Amazon! Talk about Bang For The Buck!), and only a few are skip-overs.

  • http://paperfrigate.blogspot.com DrPat

    Martin’s comedy has been closer to life than frantic for more than a decade. Forget Man With Two Brains – that was over 20 years ago! Think Roxanne, yes, but also Father of the Bride, and the fantastic LA Story.

    And while we’re documenting manic comedians who (successfully) switch to drama, let’s not forget Robin Williams, who showed he can chill us as well, with Insomnia and One-Hour Photo.

  • http://paperfrigate.blogspot.com DrPat

    Oh yeah – and he can still make us laugh til tears flow, as Death to Smoochy proves!

  • http://www.templestark.com Temple Stark

    Great headline !!!. ‘ll read the rest soon.

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