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Out-of-Steppers

Steve Martin misses the spark in this remake

Steve Martin says he doesn't want audiences to expect the same old Steve Martin whenever he stars in a comedy. But that means one thing when he's referring to Roxanne and L.A. Story, two inspired flights of romantic farce (based on his own scripts), and another when he's talking about Parenthood, Father of the Bride and now The Out-of-Towners, movies in which he wears out his arsenal of sullen ironic masks when confronting middle-class frustrations.

It makes you wonder whether, for all his comic brilliance, Martin understands what a grand creation the "old" Steve Martin was. The standup character may have worn an arrow through his head, but even then his persona was a total straight arrow who couldn't disguise his panic about making friends and influencing people in a hipness-saturated era. His everybody-join-in humor was the opposite of hip; its goal was finding the common bond of silliness that could unite us all. These days, in his New Yorker humor pieces and his comic screenplays and stage plays (particularly the hilarious Picasso at the Lapin Agile), Martin preserves that transcendent spark and augments it with another post-hip quality: genuine sophistication. But as the harried household head in The Out-of-Towners, the thrill is gone. His character is dull, and his performance is fatigued.

Martin plays an Ohio ad exec who has been sacked just when he and his wife (Goldie Hawn) are confronting empty-nest syndrome. A job interview at a big firm in Manhattan looks like a veritable lifesaver. In the 1970 original, Jack Lemmon was simply a rabid go-getter who wanted to move to New York as the next step up in his career. In her own eerily discombobulated fashion, his wife (played by Sandy Dennis) was a rock of wisdom who made him realize that '60s Gotham -- with its violence, garbage strikes and transit woes -- was a Gothic nightmare. This late-'90s remake reverses the original's meanings and relationships. Hawn, unlike Martin, doesn't want to mellow out. She convinces her husband that Rudy Giuliani's buffed and flossed New York is the land of opportunity and the change that their stagnant marriage needs. Go east, middle-aged Midwesterners.

Lemmon's anal, status-driven franticness was hard to take, but he was the perfect foil to Dennis's magnificent ditziness, and he imbued the material with his own momentum. With Martin acting depressed and Hawn tamping down her sparkle to meet him halfway, this movie bobs lackadaisically from bouts of travelers' frustration (delayed plane, missed train, wrecked automobile) to random street crimes and numerous marital spats. Domestic ennui was the basis of a thousand Henny Youngman one-liners, but the sight of Martin ignoring the sex-primed Hawn hardly marks a promising liftoff for a full-length movie. Without a comic vision of New York or a male lead who rouses himself beyond muted sarcasm, The Out-of-Towners becomes a predictable series of wan variety-show skits: the proper housewife beguiling an L.A. agent in order to get into his swanky hotel room; the buttoned-up businessman relieving himself in Central Park and getting tossed into the slammer.

Hawn, a trouper, locates all the available giggles and wins applause for her big tantrum scene. And John Cleese is riotously funny as the ultraofficious manager of a luxury hotel: He sharpens each line as he spits out dialogue between clenched teeth; he even kicks like a cancan dancer while wearing borrowed high heels and a fur coat. Martin used to pull off similar feats of slapstick prowess, but in this film his physical moves are fuzzy. Is he too caught up in his character's glumness or merely deeply bored? If he keeps acting in vehicles as indifferent as this one, he may turn into one mild and lazy guy.

The Out-of-Towners.
Rated PG-13.
Directed by Sam Weisman. With Steve Martin, Goldie Hawn and John Cleese.

 
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