Going Gaga In Lotusland

As a target for satire, Los Angeles is the equivalent of an elephant wearing a big neon sign: SHOOT ME. But bringing this baby down isn't as easy as it looks. By wearing its absurdity so casually on its sleeve, L.A. has a way of rendering satire redundant. Remember the comic overkill of "The Loved One"? Frantically attacking Lotusland vulgarity, the filmmakers themselves ended up looking vulgar.

In L.A. Story, Steve Martin rushes in where wise men fear to tread and makes merry sport with the city of the angels. As both the writer and star, Martin brings a puckish sense of irony that sets the right tone of sunny, silly disenchantment: the movie's a fond sendup. It's also Martin's most personal film: call it his sunbaked version of "Annie Hall." He plays antic TV weatherman Harris K. Telemacher. A cultured, unhappy soul, Harris feels demeaned by his job and stuck in a bad relationship with his girlfriend (Marilu Henner). Then he gets a magical sign predicting his life will change: a digital freeway sign speaks to him in riddles. His fairy princess appears in the form of Sara (Victoria Tennant, a.k.a. Mrs. Martin), an English journalist whose ex-husband (Richard E. Grant) unfortunately wants her back.

A lot of the movie's targets are familiar ones-earthquakes, freeway shootouts, trendy-unto-death restaurants, the youth culture. If a few of the gags are beyond restoration, director Mick Jackson keeps them whizzing by so fast you don't mind the misses. At a chic brunch the throwaway lines come with dizzy rapidity. "I understand you're taking a course in the art of conversation?" Martin chitchats with a woman. "Yes." Jackson, who has done wonderful work on British television ("Double Helix"), never belabors a joke, and when the story turns magical, gives it just the right lyric spin.

The love story, alas, never quite clicks. Tennant's part is too cryptically written, and her performance too chilly for any real romantic sparks to fly. It's more amusing watching Martin's temporary affair with a young, gum-chewing, aerobotized salesgirl played, with hilarious gusto, by Sarah Jessica Parker. "L.A. Story" won't win any awards for formal perfection--it's sometimes as amorphous as L.A. itself, it sprawls when you'd like it to deepen--but tidiness is a minor virtue in comedy. More to the point, "L.A. Story" is giddy fun.

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