Total Recall

Total Recall: Steve Martin's Best Movies

We count down the best-reviewed films of the noted actor, writer, director, and wild and crazy guy.

by | February 5, 2009 | Comments

It isn’t the most highly anticipated sequel of the year, but The Pink Panther 2 opens this weekend, and in honor of Steve Martin‘s second turn as the successful-in-spite-of-himself Inspector Clouseau, we decided this would be a great time to look back at the best-reviewed movies of his career.

Over the last three decades, Martin has done it all: starred in classic comedies (The Jerk), critically lauded dramas (The Spanish Prisoner), and even a musical (Pennies from Heaven). He’s written books, plays, and is currently promoting his first album of original banjo music alongside Pink Panther 2; clearly, even in the collection of larger-than-life personalities known as Hollywood, Steve Martin is in a class of his own. So let’s spin the dials on the Tomatometer and relive the 10 freshest films in the Martin filmography — and when we’re done, have a look at the rest of his releases, including all your favorites that missed the cut!

10. Pennies from Heaven (83 percent)

Worried about being typecast as a buffoon, Martin used the career capital he’d earned with The Jerk to make his dramatic debut in the American remake of the 1978 BBC series Pennies from Heaven. Having loved the source material — he publicly proclaimed it “the greatest thing I’ve ever seen” — Martin went all out for the role of Depression-era sheet-music salesman Arthur Parker, taking six months of tap-dancing lessons in preparation for what ended up being one of the more critically well-received flops of the first half of the decade. Although audiences ignored Pennies, bringing in a paltry $9 million return on its $22 million budget — and Fred Astaire bitterly bemoaned the use of his old footage in a film he derided as “cheap and vulgar…froth” — many critics appreciated the script’s cynical update on the classic musicals of the 1930s; Roger Ebert captured the mood of many of his peers when he termed it “dazzling and disappointing in equal measure.”

9. The Jerk (83 percent)

Martin’s first role in a feature film came in 1978’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but the less said about that, the better; for all intents and purposes, his movie career kicked off with his appearance as the simpleminded Navin R. Johnson in the rags-to-riches-and-back-again story The Jerk. While it certainly isn’t for everyone — if you require your comedies to have brains to go along with their hearts, or even to make complete sense from start to finish, then you may not find it all that funny — but it’s full of classic bits, and Martin’s willingness to get dumb helped blaze a trail for everyone from Adam Sandler to Jim Carrey. (Don’t thank him all at once.) Not all critics appreciated The Jerk when it was released, but it’s aged well, moving into the pop-culture consciousness and inspiring fond memories in scribes like Channel 4 Film‘s Richard Luck, who wistfully remarked, “if only he could have satisfied himself with this area of expertise, people would still talk of Steve Martin as one of the kings of comic cinema.”

8. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (88 percent)

Faithful in story, if not entirely in spirit, to 1964’s David Niven/Marlon Brando farce Bedtime Story, 1988’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels acts as a sort of closing chapter in the career of Steve Martin, absurdist funnyman; after yukking it up with Michael Caine in the French countryside for this tale of dueling grifters — and offending eyepatch-wearing inbreds everywhere with his unforgettable scenes as Ruprecht the Monkey Boy — Martin mostly avoided abject silliness until signing on for The Pink Panther. Critics were, for the most part, quite kind to Scoundrels; although they were quick to point out the film’s recycled origins, as well as the occasional plot defect, the fun being had by the leads is as obvious as it is infectious. In the words of the BBC‘s George Perry, “there is a slightly perfunctory air in the way the story unreels as though it’s all been done before. Nevertheless, Caine and Martin make a great double act.”

7. The Spanish Prisoner (88 percent)

Although Martin had attempted a number of dramatic roles by the late 1990s, his appearance in David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner still seemed like something of a revelation — partly because it came during a period in which Martin was receiving positive notice for branching out into new areas (the 1993 play Picasso at the Lapin Agile; his essay-writing gig for the New Yorker), and partly because it was a good deal more entertaining than any of his recent comedies (including Mixed Nuts and Sgt. Bilko). Of course, the star of any Mamet production is Mamet’s script — something pointed out by several critics who took issue with the many Mamet-isms in The Spanish Prisoner‘s dialogue — but Martin acquitted himself admirably as Jimmy Dell, the mysterious stranger who may or may not be pulling the strings in a high-stakes con, impressing writers like Filmcritic‘s Christopher Null, who wrote “Steve Martin and Campbell Scott — wow! Who knew they had such talent?”

6. All of Me (89 percent)

Between 1978 and 1984, Martin averaged a film a year, encompassing everything from typically Martinesque comedies (The Jerk, The Man with Two Brains) to a musical revival (Pennies from Heaven) and a film noir parody (Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid). Not everything he made during this period was particularly well-received, either by critics or filmgoers, but 1984’s All of Me represents an early career peak. Teaming with director Carl Reiner for the fourth time, Martin plays Roger Cobb, an attorney/jazz guitarist who ends up having half of his body taken over by the spirit of a deceased client (played by Lily Tomlin). The setup is ridiculous, but it allows Martin plenty of room to display his incredible gift for physical comedy; the scenes in which he struggles with Tomlin’s spirit for control of his body would make the movie worth watching even if they were its only good qualities. Fortunately, there’s a very good story, and some fine performances, behind all the laughs; as Time Magazine‘s Richard Corliss observed, “Martin vaults to the top of the class with his brazen, precise performance. This one goes in the time capsule.”

5. Little Shop of Horrors (91 percent)

Okay, so Little Shop of Horrors isn’t a Steve Martin movie in the truest sense; his appearance as the sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello is basically a glorified cameo. But what a cameo it is — Martin’s big musical number, the terrifically witty “Dentist!,” just about steals the show, which is all the more impressive when you stop to consider that the show in question features a bloodthirsty talking plant with spellbindingly full lips and the voice of Levi Stubbs. Most critics enjoyed this colorful, Frank Oz-directed musical update on Roger Corman’s 1960 film, but even the ones who didn’t — such as eFilmCritic‘s Brian McKay — admitted that Little Shop is “made tolerable by Steve Martin and the talking plant.”

4. Parenthood (92 percent)

Ten years after redefining doofus comedy with 1979’s The Jerk, Steve Martin had (mostly) traded in props and pratfalls — and he cemented his more reflective, mature on-screen persona with his appearance as sensitive dad Gil Buckman in Ron Howard’s Parenthood. Blending comedy and drama with crowded casts was trendy for a time in the late ’80s (thirtysomething, anyone?), and there are few better examples of the “dramedy” subgenre than this tender, witty look at the tangled bonds between parents and their kids; Parenthood was greeted with a wave of glowing reviews upon its release, many of them reserving their highest praise for the uncommon dexterity with which the story (written by Howard, Lowell Ganz, and Babaloo Mandel) jumps between its numerous threads. Martin disappointed some critics (and fans) by trading in madcap laughs for gentle observations, but there’s no denying he did it well. As Rolling Stone‘s Peter Travers pointed out, “It’s a shock, and a welcome one, to see Steve Martin cast against type as a doting dad. Martin’s nippy wit continually lifts this movie above the swamp of sentiment.”

3. Roxanne (93 percent)

The years leading up to Roxanne were not the most active ones for Steve Martin — after 1984’s All of Me, he surfaced only to make a brief appearance in 1986’s Little Shop of Horrors remake and co-star with Chevy Chase and Martin Short in ¡Three Amigos! the same year — and this was due, in part, to the time he spent working on the script for Roxanne. A loose modern update on Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, it stars Martin as C.D. “Charlie” Bales, a small-town fire chief and all-around good guy who just happens to have an enormous nose. Afraid to express his feelings for the titular object of his affections (played by Daryl Hannah), he compensates by helping a loutish volunteer fireman woo her. Like many Martin movies, Roxanne is unabashedly sweet, and although some critics found it overly sentimental — Variety dismissed it as “hopelessly sappy stuff” — most agreed with the Washington Post‘s Hal Hinson, who held it up as “the most unabashed, and most satisfying, romantic movie to come along in years” and “a swooning, delicate, heart-on-its-sleeve work.”

2. L.A. Story (94 percent)

New York has received plenty of cinematic love letters in its day — take, for instance, the bulk of Woody Allen’s output — but what about poor, smoggy Los Angeles? Steve Martin addressed this imbalance when he wrote and starred in 1991’s L.A. Story, an affectionate sendup of the city’s many foibles (and tribute to its strengths) in which he played Harris K. Telemacher, a down-on-his-luck weatherman whose quest for meaningful relationships is aided by a riddle-dispensing electronic billboard. It sounds ludicrous — and it is — but it’s also very charming and often very funny. As Vincent Canby of the New York Times put it, “Like Mr. Martin himself, L.A. Story seems basically decent, intelligent and sweet. It’s a fanciful romantic comedy whose wildest and craziest notion is that Los Angeles, for all of its eccentricities, is a great place to live.”

1. Planes, Trains and Automobiles (95 percent)

Today it’s regarded as a modern holiday classic, but in 1987, a person could have been forgiven for assuming Planes, Trains and Automobiles would be little more than lowbrow piffle; after all, neither its stars nor its writer/director were known to pass up any opportunity to make a joke about a bodily function. But guess what? Planes proved that John Hughes could make an adult comedy when the mood struck him, provided John Candy with an opportunity to broaden his range, and gave Martin his second non-wild and crazy role in less than a year. As Neal Page, the uptight ad exec who watches haplessly as his 90-minute flight home devolves into a torturous three-day journey, Martin has plenty of chances to go for easy laughs — but he also shows a subtler, more restrained side, one that foreshadowed some of the projects he’d choose in the years to come. It is, in the words of Moviehole‘s Clint Morris, “One of John Hughes’ finest hours, and a tour de force for Candy and Martin.”

For Steve Martin’s complete filmography, click here. And check out the rest of our Total Recall archives here.

Finally, here’s everyone’s favorite wild and crazy guy doing one of his most celebrated standup numbers, “King Tut”: