Steve Martin’s got a banjo album coming out, his first all-music recording. This isn’t a joke. Anyone old enough to remember Martin’s stand-up days, anyone who bought his “Let’s Get Small” comedy record, knows that he’s pretty accomplished on that instrument. Dolly Parton is on the new album. Now, I don’t buy lots of banjo-based recordings. But if forced to choose between music featuring Steve Martin and any recent movie starring the man, I’ll bet on the banjo.
Because, really, have you seen any of his films lately? I have. All of them. And what I really want to know is this: What is the man’s problem? And why does he want to punish us? If you’re being honest with yourself, you know in your heart and probably don’t want to say out loud, that “The Pink Panther 2” is, in all probability, going to suck.
No, I haven’t seen it yet. But the evidence is on the side of me being sadly, painfully correct. And you may think that I’m simply going to say that the first Martin-starring “Pink Panther” movie is the bulk of that evidence. And it would be enough, because if it were a criminal act to make an unfunny comedy, then that inexplicably profitable heap of diluted red waste would be reason to put its writer/star on lockdown for life.
But, unfortunately, I have more reasons. Their names are, in reverse chronological order, “Cheaper by The Dozen 2,” “Cheaper by the Dozen,” “Bringing Down The House,” “The Out of Towners,” “Sgt. Bilko,” “Father of the Bride 2,” “Mixed Nuts” and “Housesitter.” This is what the career of one of America’s funniest men has come to: oatmeal-bland family comedies, sequels to those oatmeal-bland family comedies, and bizarre misfires.
“Mixed Nuts” was, in fact, a first for me. I had never walked out of a movie before that mournful day in 1994. And then, after watching 50 minutes of it, I had. My turning point. I sat in the dark theater not laughing, surrounded by other not-laughing people, and thought, “I could be home now, alphabetizing something. No one will care if I get up. They’ll just think I’m going to the bathroom. And then I can just leave. I think… yes… I am going to do this! It feels good!”
Years later I would also walk out of Martin’s film, “Novocaine.” But that wasn’t supposed to be a comedy. At least I don’t think it was supposed to be a comedy. It better not have been a comedy.
Back in Martin’s heydayAnyway, it wasn’t always like this. From 1979 on, for a lot of years, every movie Martin made lived within the range of pretty-funny to mostly-funny to hurt-you-funny. “The Jerk,” “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,” “The Man With Two Brains,” “The Lonely Guy,” “All of Me,” “Three Amigos!” “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Roxanne,” “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” “Parenthood.” A really good streak. You could trust that if he was in it, then it wouldn’t be rotten and you wouldn’t feel cheated out of your ticket money.
And then came “Father of The Bride” and “L.A. Story” in the same year. The man in the hilarious “L.A. Story” was the Martin we knew: a charming guy who could eviscerate his surroundings while still living comfortably within them. He was the guy we recognized. But apparently our comfort was not comfortable enough and we needed him to be our pop culture Dad, too. And so, in “Bride,” he was.
In this monstrously successful family movie, Martin had the Robin Williams role. To his credit, he didn’t desperately mug and riff his way through the film like Williams would have. But it marked a turn to the safe and comfy for Martin that he’s settled into like one of those Snuggies everyone seems to own now. Go back and look at that movie again sometime. Do you laugh out loud? Do your sides ache because it’s so outrageous? No. You chuckle warmly. Maybe.
It marked a strange shift in Martin’s career, one where taking the easy, lazy way out brought box office results that were just as monetarily satisfying as anything he did before, if not more so. It was as if trying hard and aiming high didn’t matter anymore. It certainly didn’t matter to the audience buying the tickets. If it had then “Cheaper by the Dozen” wouldn’t have seen a sequel. And now? He’s mostly just coasting on reputation.
Hints of his former selfHe occasionally teases his old fans with flashes of the biting humor we used to know. “Bowfinger” glowed like an alien treasure in the midst of this downward cinematic slide into mediocrity; he kept hosting “Saturday Night Live,” lifting it out of its occasional slumps just when it needed it most; he was an awesomely funny Academy Awards host; and when Tina Fey gets hold of him, like in his turn as a self-absorbed organic foods CEO in “Baby Mama” or while guesting on “30 Rock,” he shines and reminds you of what you’ve been missing all this time.
That’s kind of when it hurts the most. You know that funny Steve Martin is still in there somewhere. And then that “Pink Panther 2” ad comes on TV and you get depressed again.
Maybe his work as a playwright and novelist and his art collecting activities interest him more now. Or maybe it’s the competition and Will Ferrell psyched him out. Or maybe it’s his surroundings. Maybe he just rises to the level of the people he’s working with. That would explain the Tina Fey connection. Maybe she just gets his respect in a way other collaborators don’t and she helps put him back on his game the way others can’t.
Whatever the behind the scenes machinations are, I’m hoping Fey stays a part of them. Because we don’t need another Robin Williams. And it’s not like you can expect Adam Sandler to step in and save movie comedy. But as it stands now, the “Excuse ME!” guy is running out of excuses. And I’m bummed.
Dave White is the film critic for Movies.com. Find him at .