Steve Martin: Criminally Funny

“I could handle any insurance seminar... for days I could listen to them go on and on with a big stupid smile on my face, and they’d say ‘Man, how can you stand it?’. And I’d say ‘Cause I’ve been with Del Griffith. I can take anything.’”Neil Page, Planes Trains & Automobiles

Steve Martin has been entertaining audiences for years. His stand-up comedy performances packed arenas and stadiums, his short essays and novellas stay on best seller lists for weeks, his television appearances are always talked about, and his movies are some of Hollywood’s most memorable productions. A Steve Martin movie character is a character that the audience wants to see overcome obstacles and win the day. However, many audiences overlook the fact that most of Steve Martin’s characters are criminals. They are con men, thieves, stalkers, or socially annoying individuals. So why do we want to see these men succeed? What is it about these characters that make an audience cheer when they achieve good fortune?

Perhaps it is because we can identify with these criminal characters. Consider Steve’s role in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in which he plays Freddy Benson, a small time con artist who believes that a successful conning is to trick a woman into buying him dinner. Freddy is an inept con artist. His only con story is that he needs money to pay for his grandmother’s operation. He doesn’t see the opportunities that lay before him if he were to only work a little harder at his conning until he meets Lawrence Jameson (Michael Caine) who has made a very successful living as a con artist. Freddy is envious of Lawrence’s success and lifestyle. We can feel Freddy Benson’s envy and identify with it. Everyone has felt envious or jealous towards someone at some point in his or her life. We want to see Freddy succeed – to see him beat Lawrence at his own game. As the film progresses Freddy and Lawrence make a bet – the first one of them to con $50,000 from a woman they’ve chosen as a target can stay in the town where the wealthy and naïve vacation, while the loser must leave forever. Freddy takes on the guise of a crippled military man. He says he needs money - $50,000 - for a psychologist to cure his lame legs (his not being able to walk is all in his mind). Slowly Freddy and the target, Janet Colgate, fall in love. Lawrence, of course, intervenes as the psychologist who can help Freddy but only if Janet will pay his $50,000 fee. Lawrence also tries to steal Janet away from Freddy, who has fallen in love with her, by going dancing with her while Freddy watches, helplessly, from his wheelchair. Some actual military men see Lawrence and Janet dancing, and Freddy explains to them “She used to be my girl. I’m sure if I could just be alone with her I could win her back. But he’s always around (referring to Lawrence).” The sailors tell Freddy that there’s a plane leaving for Honduras and that Lawrence could be on it if he so desires. Freddy agrees and soon Lawrence finds himself kidnapped and on his way overseas. Freddy rejoices and goes to Janet who helps him to ‘walk’ again and they are just about to make out when Lawrence appears in the room. Janet explains how Lawrence knew that Freddy would come there tonight and how she could help to make him walk. How did Lawrence escape from the sailors? It turns out he’s a captain (or, at the very least, has the credentials of one) in the navy and the sailors let him go. Touché, Lawrence. Freddy will have to try harder.

Another example of identifying with a character is found in Bowfinger in which Steve plays Bobby Bowfinger, a small time film director who has wanted to make a movie all of his life. But now he’s approaching the age of fifty, and when you turn fifty Hollywood won’t hire you anymore. “It’s like they can smell fifty,” he says. In order to get his movie made he “borrows” camera equipment, shanghais a group of illegal Mexican immigrants to work as his film crew, and follows action star Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy) around filming the movie around his reactions without Ramsey actually knowing he’s in the movie. Here Bowfinger is the underdog, which is another role that most of us have found ourselves in at one point or another. We want to see Bowfinger win one for the little guy and beat the system by successfully making his movie. We feel better about ourselves when we see Bowfinger scheme his way through another part of the filming of his movie, Chubby Rain.

The Steve Martin character that is probably the easiest to identify with is Planes, Trains, & Automobiles’s Neil Page, an advertising executive who is trying to get home from New York City to Chicago in time for Thanksgiving. Along the way he runs into the most annoying man in the world, Del Griffith (John Candy), a shower curtain ring salesman for the American Light and Fixture Company. Del latches on to Neil in the New York City airport, talks nonstop during the flight to Chicago (which is rerouted to Wichita due to a snowstorm), uses all the clean towels in the motel room the two have to share, and spills beer on Neil’s part of the bed (“I didn’t know those beer cans were going to explode like that,” Del says. “You left them on a vibrating bed, what did you think was going to happen?” Neil replies.). No matter what Neil does to get rid of Del, fate pairs them up again. Everyone has had an annoying blabbermouth in their lives before and we’ve all wanted to tell them off and send them on their way. Of course in our society it is considered rude to behave in such an antisocial way. In PTA Neil behaves exactly as we have all wanted to do before. Early in the film he rants about Del’s annoying qualities in a spectacular monologue (“Did you notice on the plane when you were talking that eventually I started reading the vomit bag? Didn’t that give you some kind of clue? Like maybe ‘Hey, maybe this guy’s not into it’?”), something that I know that I’ve wanted to do on occasion. Another classic example from this movie is when Neil rents a car in St. Louis, is dropped off at the rental car parking lot by bus, walks to his rental car space and finds it empty. There is not a car for him in the lot. He has to walk across a busy highway and a runway through the snow and muck only to find out that there aren’t any available cars left. In another classic Martin monologue, Neil swears at the poor rental car attendant with over a dozen utterances of the work "fuck" (this one scene earned the film its R rating). The bottom line is that we want to see all of these characters succeed because, deep down, at some point on our pasts we have wanted to be able to do so gracefully what they do in the movies.

A second reason we cheer for these criminal characters is that they subvert authority. For instance, Bobby Bowfinger needs a Hollywood producer to give Chubby Rain a green light in order for the movie to be filmed. Bowfinger does not have the normal image of a film director – he wears a horrible plaid sport jacket that clashes with his pants, he drives a worn out construction van, and he doesn’t know anybody in the film industry. In order to get the image he needs, he swaps his jacket for a matching one (by just switching the jackets in a store – he doesn’t actually buy one) and convinces his lackey to let him borrow a studio’s vintage car to drive to the restaurant. In order to get a cell phone Bowfinger rips the built-in car phone’s receiver out and carries it with him as if it were an actual cell phone (wire hanging off the receiver). Once at lunch he slips the attendant some cash to seat him next to the producer, Jerry Renfo (played by a temporarily non-stoned Robert Downey, Jr.). Once seated, Bowfinger talks loudly into his broken car phone about how he has a terrific script to film and he wants Kit Ramsey to star in his movie. Renfro overhears this one-sided conversation, takes a brief look at the script, and agrees to handle the picture if Ramsey will star in it. By pretending to have an image, contacts, and a deal with Kit Ramsey, Bowfinger has a green lighted script. The subversion of authority strikes! Furthermore, near the end of the movie a group of Kit’s entourage from the cult-like Mindhead group discover Bowfinger’s scheme, to which Bowfinger instantly replies, “This film is only for distribution in Madagascar and Iran neither of which accept American copyright or trademark law.” It looks like Chubby Rain will never see the light of day until Bowfinger finds a spare roll of film showing Kit flashing his genitals at the Laker Girls cheerleading squad. Bowfinger explains that all they need is Kit’s OK for the film and a few close-ups and dialogue or “We’ll have to tag our film with a shot of Kit waving his ‘thing’ at the Laker Girls which I think is a great ending, but it’s not such as great ending for Kit because it could sort of stop his money supply and make that family film he’s about to do just, y’know, *pfft*.” Ultimately Bowfinger gets the approval he seeks and the subversion of authority strikes again!

Another example of one of Steve Martin’s characters subverting authority can be found in a classic scene from Father of the Bride. Steve plays George Banks, a man whose daughter is getting married. The impending wedding is driving George crazy with its increasing expenses and his lack of control over it. Seeking temporary escape from the wedding planning festivities, George goes to the grocery store to buy some hot dogs and some hot dog buns. A stock boy sees George tearing open bags of buns and removing several buns and placing them back on the shelf sans packaging. “Sir, what are you doing?” the stock boy asks. George responds by launching into another spectacular Steve Martin rant about how hot dogs are only sold in packages of eight and buns are only sold in packages of twelve. Why is this? Because some big-shot at the hot dog company got together with some big-shot at the bun company and decided to rip off the American consumer by forcing them to buy extra buns that they do not need. He only needs eight buns, so he is removing the superfluous buns. Of course George is arrested for this, but for that one brief moment authority has been challenged once again, which is something that we all like to see from time to time.

Probably the most obvious authority subverting Steve Martin character is Ernie Bilko from Sgt. Bilko. In this movie Bilko is in charge of the Motor Pool at an army base. He is also a con man who provides a place for other officers to gamble. He manages to fix sporting events and avoid consequences by smooth talking and manipulating his superiors to get what he wants. At one point to earn some quick money, Bilko sells tickets to the ‘Meet Stormin’ Norman Barbecue’ where the famed general is really just a celebrity imposter. Or, during a flashback scene, we see how Bilko fixed a boxing match by paying both contenders to take a fall, resulting in a perplexing double knockout. Bilko always manages to cover-up his schemes and nobody is the wiser (such as Dan Aykroyd’s clueless commander character in the film).

Other times we enjoy Steve’s criminal characters because we want to see just how much they can get away with. In My Blue Heaven Steve plays Vincent Antonelli, a former Mafia figure turned FBI informant. He is relocated to a sleepy suburban town for protection until his can testify, but while he is supposed to keep a low profile Vinnie makes a point of committing crime after crime after crime, from underpaying for groceries to outright theft. At one point in the film he is arrested for stealing a car and is questioned by the police. He is asked where he learned to jump-start a car. His response? “I had to learn to jump start ambulances, to get invalids to the dialysis machines.” When asked why he had stolen books about how to write a book in the trunk of the stolen car, he replies that he was thinking of writing his life story, so he bought the book to tell him how to do it. “Why do you need twenty-five copies of it?” the police ask. Vinnie replies, “In case I want to read it more than once.” Elsewhere in the film Vinnie is grocery shopping and finds a grocer’s price gun. He takes it and prints dozens of twenty-nine cent price tags and sticks them to all of his groceries. He pays a few dollars for tens of pounds of meat. At another point he sneaks away from the quiet town he’s been sent to back to New York where he parties with his old Mafia friends. The FBI agent assigned to him, Barney Coopersmith (played by Rick Moranis) goes to New York to track him down. Vinnie engages in one madcap escapade after another to get himself and Barney out of New York safely. Each of Vinnie’s activities are wilder than the last, and we want to see just how far he can go before something backfires on him. We want to be this type of character because no matter what mess he’s gotten himself into he can always smooth talk his way out. Everything always works for him and he always lands on his feet – that’s the appeal.

This quality also applies to PTA’s Neil Page. He’s just a regular guy who wants to get home and you want to see him get there. One bad thing after another happens to him and that only makes you want to see him succeed more. In the middle of the film Neil meets up with Del once again and they drive Del’s rental car down the interstate in the middle of the night. Neil falls asleep in the passenger seat and Del plays ‘air piano’ to a Ray Charles song on the radio while smoking a cigarette. Del accidentally gets the sleeves of his parka caught on the seat knobs and winds up driving off an exit and running a stop sign, to which he screams, spins the car in several circles when he loses control, and tears his parka from the seat. “What happened?” Neil asks, waking. “Oh, uh, we almost hit a deer,” Del replies. Then they drive back on to the interstate, however they do not realize that they are driving eastbound on a westbound highway. Somebody traveling on the other side of the road sees this and screams at the traveling duo that they are going the wrong way. “That’s ridiculous,” Neil says to Del, still oblivious that they are driving in the wrong direction, “How could he know where we’re going?”. Moments later their car squeezes between two semi trucks heading in the correct direction, scratching and scraping the rental car to bits and tossing their luggage off the roof of the car and on to the road. Once they are safely out of the car it catches fire, burning to a crisp. Tell me, after all of this madness do you really not want to see Neil and Del get home safely? You want to cheer for these guys as they travel home because you want to see what happens next and how much they can get away with along the way.

Audiences are also drawn to a character that we know to be good, but the people in the movie see as criminal. In The Jerk Steve plays Navin Johnson, a naïve country bumpkin who was born a poor black child. He drifts from one place to the next until, ultimately, he becomes wealthy thanks to his invention of the Opti-Grab eyeglasses accessory (a handle on the bridge of eyeglasses to reduce strain on the hinges). After the Opti-Grab causes over a million people to become cross-eyed from constantly staring at the accessory, Navin is named in a class action lawsuit and loses his fortune and his wife, Marie (played by Bernadette Peters). The world considers Navin to be a reckless, careless, greedy businessman, but we know that he was just caught in yet another unfortunate circumstance like every other event in the movie. We want to see him climb back to the top and succeed because the Navin character is a guy that you genuinely want to see triumph even if nobody else does. Also consider The Man With Two Brains in which Steve plays Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr, the famous surgeon who invented the zip-lock screw top brain surgery procedure (simply twist the top of the head and pull to access the brain). In this movie Hfuhruhurr marries the evil Delores (Kathleen Turner) who has only married him for his money. During the film, the doctor meets the jarred brain of Anne Uumellmahaye who can speak with him telepathically. Michael falls in love with Anne and decides to kill a woman with a beautiful body and transplant Anne’s brain into her so that he can have the perfect wife. He stalks several women with a syringe of Windex (needed to kill only the brain and not the body) and eventually meets up with the Elevator Killer (Merv Griffin) who kills Delores with Windex, leading to Michael transplanting Anne’s brain into the body of his own evil wife. Of course the police are after Michael for the murder of his wife (they stop him for a traffic violation and see him transporting Delores’s dead body). The authorities are out to capture Michael, believing him to be a ‘bad guy’, but the audience has sympathy towards him because we know his backstory and unique situation. We want Michael to find happiness, even at the cost of Delores’s life.

Sometimes Steve’s criminal characters are so completely over the top on the believability meter that you just cannot help but cheer for them. He plays such an absurd character that his performance draws you into liking the character. For instance, in the 1986 musical remake of Little Shop of Horrors Steve plays Dr. Orin Scrivello, D.D.S, a sadistic dentist who uses the laughing gas on himself instead of his patients (not just during dental procedures – he carries a small spray bottle of the stuff with him to use at any time). Steve performs a wild and crazy singing and dancing musical number (Son, Be a Dentist) that steals the show so that you just cannot help but like him. This character takes great pleasure in causing pain, so he found that he is best suited to dental work (as he says in song, “You have a talent for causing things pain. Son, be a dentist - people will pay you to be inhumane!”). He drills and pulls teeth for no reason (again, as he says in song, “I’m thrilled when I drill a bicuspid although they tell me I’m maladjusted.”). This character is such a demented figure that you are drawn to him to see what he’s going to do next. He keeps you guessing, which is why you go along with his madness. We cheer for him because he is entertaining. Speaking of killer dentists, in Novocaine Steve plays the role of a dentist accused of the murder of one of his patients. The criminal character trend continues.

All in all, audiences are drawn to Steve Martin’s criminal characters because it is easy to identify with them, they subvert authority, they are entertaining, and they are just plain likable. Over the years Steve has played a variety of popular characters ranging from all-out criminals to good men put into bad situations in some of the most memorable and classic movies of our time. No film comedy fan’s film collection of movies is complete without these works, criminals as they may be. Steve Martin has disproven the old adage – crime really does pay.

“You know, sometimes I even amaze myself.”Vincent Antonelli, My Blue Heaven

A "Node Your Homework" production