Steve Martin Michael Sragow - Essay

Michael Sragow

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What gives [Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid] some distinction is that it marks Steve Martin's most effective screen appearance yet. To put it briefly: clothes have made the comedian.

Describing how important his white suits were to his kinetic standup comedy act, Steve Martin said that they were "like leotards that define your body." With their sharp, square lines, they were a key component of the Martin comic persona: the total straight-arrow and ultimate fair-haired boy whose goofy amiability couldn't totally disguise his panic about making friends and influencing people in our post-hip era. Martin's everybody-join-in humor was the opposite of hip; his goal seemed to be finding the silliness that could bond us all.

When Martin and [Carl] Reiner first tried to transfer his humor to the screen in The Jerk, all they arrived at was lowest-common-denominator buffoonery. Jettisoning his wardrobe and his mock suaveness, Martin appeared to lust for the dubious mantle of Jerry Lewis. But in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, Martin gets to wear a lady-killer wardrobe. Few actors have ever looked better in long collars, padded shoulders, cuffed trousers, wide deco ties and suspenders: everything accents his rectangular body and features with an intense theatricality. Though [Martin's character] Rigby Reardon is all spruced up and ready to swing, he thinks and reacts like a nerd because his hard-boiled conscience keeps on telling him that women are poison. Riotous short circuits pop up between his élan and his etiquette. With his almost innate stylization, Martin is able to pull off gags that would merely be coarse in other comics' hands….

Unfortunately, the central idea rarely transcends gimmickry: as in Pennies from Heaven, the moviemakers fail to transport us to that special never-never land that looms somewhere between terra firma and the silver screen. But Steve Martin is a genuine movie star. He's one comic actor who doesn't just take chances—he makes good on them.

Michael Sragow, "Three Hapless Heroes," in Rolling Stone, Issue 371, June 10, 1982, p. 38.∗