The Five Absolutely Essential Steve Martin Movies

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The Five Absolutely Essential Steve Martin Movies

Welcome to “Five Absolutely Essentials,” an overview of the greatest comedians’ most memorable moments. Mind you, these aren’t necessarily their “best” movies — rather, these are the five films that best represent different aspects of their talent, their ambition, their persona and the artistic risks they’ve taken along the way. If you’re looking for a sense of a comic in all his or her complexity, here’s where to start. 

Steve Martin is a revered comic icon without being a traditional movie star. Sure, he’s been part of tons of hits, but he was never the sort of gigantic box-office draw that, say, an Eddie Murphy or Will Ferrell was. That’s not an insult to the 77-year-old legend — merely an indication that Martin more successfully evolved over time, never being straitjacketed by one specific persona and, instead, following his muse wherever it took him. Kids’ movies, dark thrillers, goofy broad comedies: You name it, he’s done it, and probably pretty well.

As a result, it’s challenging to boil his essence down to only five movies. But if you wanted to define this celebrated renaissance man, here are the films that best illustrate his range.

The Jerk (1979)

By the end of the 1970s, Martin was ready to step away from his massively successful stand-up career, which saw him get so huge that by the end he was playing arenas. And so he went looking for fresh challenges. “Film comedy was just obvious to me (as a next step),” he said in 2015. “Once you did it, it was done. With stand-up, you had to do it again every night. With film, you could actually perfect something and secure it. I had a lot of momentum, so it wasn’t too difficult to get into the movies.” 

He’d done bit parts in a few films prior to The Jerk, like The Muppet Movie, but that 1979 smash (which he co-wrote) expertly translated his absurdist stage persona to the big screen, sending his moronic character Navin on a strange odyssey involving deranged killers, romance, clever inventions — three cheers for the Opti-Grab — and even a court case. “It was a joy to work on the movie and the script,” Martin wrote in his memoir Born Standing Up. “Our goal in writing was a laugh on every page. … The movie represented my small (stand-up) act’s ultimate expression.”

To say the least, tight plotting wasn’t Martin’s strong suit at this early stage of his career, but The Jerk was more about a vibe, the comic flaunting the arch silliness that had made him a superstar on stage. What’s also striking is that Martin hadn’t entirely gotten comfortable in front of the camera yet — he’s not so much playing a character as he is doing an extended riff, almost testing to see how much weirdness an audience will take. In future years, he’d become a more polished, poised performer, but The Jerk is a fascinating glimpse into Martin’s unfiltered goofiness. 

Roxanne (1987)

Even early in his film career, it was apparent that Martin wanted to take risks. He starred in an ambitious musical (Pennies From Heaven) and embraced outlandish physical comedy in the acclaimed All of Me. His screenwriting aspirations grew at the same time. “Writing is something I took up rather than anything I had an inclination toward,” he once said. “I like acting — delivering someone else’s message — but writing is more of an accomplishment.”

And so he hit upon the idea of adapting Cyrano de Bergerac, about a lovely man held back because of his large nose. Bringing the story to modern times, Martin created Roxanne, in which he played fireman C.D., a swell guy smitten with pretty Roxanne (Daryl Hannah), whom he assumes couldn’t possibly love him because of his enormous schnoz. Instead, he agrees to help fellow fireman Chris (Rick Rossovich) by giving the not-so-bright man the words to use to woo her.

This was the start of the more serious Martin on screen: Roxanne is very much a comedy, of course, but it’s more mature and less bizarre than his earlier work. Roxanne also found Martin convincingly play a love interest, revealing a tenderness his initial comedies had shied away from. “I just thought, ‘I’ll figure out a way to play it.’ Then, two weeks before shooting began, I got worried,” he recalled. “The most important thing to me in writing and playing C.D. was that I avoid self-pity. In the play, Cyrano’s self-pity is noble. Today, self-pity turns people off.” Not to worry: Martin gave the character a quiet dignity, paving the way for later films like L.A. Story in which the comic further explored his melancholic/romantic side.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)

Just five months after Roxanne, Martin landed another triumph with this heartwarming Thanksgiving classic. You don’t need me to tell you the plot, so let’s keep it simple: Martin is Neal, John Candy is Del, they’re trying to get to Chicago, laughs and hugs ensue. Planes, Trains and Automobiles also represented a turning point for Martin in that he was more of the straight man, his uptight character slowly losing his cool while being trapped with overbearing, needy Del. After years of being typecast in the world’s mind as the wild-and-crazy guy, here he played the normie. Sure, Martin had portrayed regular dudes before Planes, Trains and Automobiles, but never one as deeply rooted in reality as anxious, irritable Neal.

“Part of the difference of this character, more than anything I’ve ever done, is that the serious base of it sets up the comedy,” Martin once said, adding that “the more serious and tense the character is, the funnier it gets when he goes crazy or finds himself in an awkward situation or sleeping, you know, with John Candy.”

Beyond being a hit, Planes, Trains and Automobiles suggested Martin’s ability to do a more grownup, sophisticated kind of feel-good comedy. Soon, he’d be showing up in films like Parenthood and the Father of the Bride remake, bringing his sharp wit to smart, ingratiating mainstream fare. 

The Spanish Prisoner (1997)

Martin made his name in comedy, but he’s occasionally tried something a little darker or more dramatic. There was his turn as a soulless action-movie producer in 1991’s Grand Canyon or a morally suspect dentist in 2001’s Novocaine. But his most successful effort was in his friend David Mamet’s thriller about a shrewd corporate executive (Campbell Scott) who befriends a wealthy stranger (Martin) secretly plotting against him. Martin never tries to be funny in The Spanish Prisoner, which makes his mysterious character Jimmy more menacing: Reserved, confident and not concerned with delivering quips, the actor projected an eerie calm that’s unlike anything he’s put on screen.

“You have to mix it up a little or else you’re doing the same thing over and over and your style becomes predictable,” Martin said this year about the experience of making The Spanish Prisoner. “I wanted to do it because comedy at its core is dramatic. You’re just shaving off the funny part.” The well-reviewed arthouse film was a modest hit, but Martin rarely pursued anything similar afterward. He’s such an effective bad guy — displaying the intimidating intelligence that’s always been evident in his humor — that it makes you wonder what might have happened if he’d done more roles like this.

Cheaper by the Dozen (2003)

For a long time, the joke was that Martin had enjoyed a successful career playing dads, despite not being a dad himself. “When you’re on the set with little kids, it brings out the father in you even though you’re not the one feeding them or putting them to bed,” said Martin, who finally had his first child in 2012. “My experiences actually served as an introduction to parenting. There’s a scene in Parenthood where my character is looking for his son’s retainer in a restaurant garbage dump. I remember saying to Ron Howard, ‘This actually happens?’ He said, ‘Yeah, it happened to me.’”

Parenthood and Father of the Bride both did well commercially, but neither was as huge as this 2003 remake of a 1950 family comedy that was adapted from a book. Martin and Bonnie Hunt play beleaguered parents raising their 12 kids, and while this Cheaper by the Dozen is hardly among his most inspired works, it (alongside his 2006 redo of The Pink Panther) demonstrated that he’d fully transitioned from groundbreaking absurdist to beloved Hollywood institution — a friendly, reliable comedic fixture not unlike his pal Tom Hanks. Few stand-ups have made the leap to films so effortlessly, and then aged so gracefully over their career. In the ensuing years, he’s remained a warm-and-fuzzy presence on stage and in Only Murders in the Building, our kindly Uncle Steve. 

“Except for a few moments early on, I never saw into the future,” he said in 2017 about the twists and turns of his career. “I never thought, ‘This is what I’m going to be doing.’ I knew what I didn’t want to be doing. But I was never guided by an overreaching plan, except moment to moment.” 

Maybe not, but nonetheless it ended up all working out pretty well for him — and us.  

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