As has been noted before, I’m not a big fan of romantic comedies as a rule. In fact, it’s a genre where I can generally spot an unbearable experience from a mile off. But that doesn’t mean the genre is completely irredeemable… it just means that good examples are rarer.
But when you throw somebody like Steve Martin the mix, as director Arthur Hiller did with 1984’s The Lonely Guy, then there’s the potential to be one of the more entertaining films in the genre… and also to be that true rarity, a romantic comedy that one can enjoy while not on a date. Arguably, it’s even better for those who aren’t romantically involved at all…
…so long as they aren’t sad sacks like this.
Steve Martin plays Larry Hubbard, a greeting card writer living in New York City. When his girlfriend dumps him for another man and throws him out of their apartment, he finds himself unexpectedly joining the ranks of the “lonely guys”. He initially figures he’s just having a bad turn, but finds that people are able to immediately peg him as a lonely guy just by how he looks and his behavior. His guide into the life of the lonely guy is Charles Grodin, turning in a hilariously depressed performance as long-time lonely guy Warren. Warren and Larry meet on a park bench, and Warren is immediately able to tell that Larry is not just a lonely guy, but a first-time lonely guy. Warren takes Larry under his sad little wing and instructs Larry on how to purchase plants to furnish an empty apartment, how to throw parties when nobody comes, and the best bridges from which to contemplate suicide.
He’s like Forrest Gump, if Gump were a carrier for clinical depression.
The other driving force in Larry’s life as a lonely guy is, of course, a girl. He meets Judith Ivey’s Iris and the two hit it off… but Iris is terrified of falling in love and losing. So even once Larry finds somebody who may be the one, he’s still a lonely guy.
Ivey does a fine job as the slightly goofy commitment-phobe, but Martin and Grodin are the real standouts here. Grodin plays such an extreme case of the sad sack that he is almost impossible to take seriously, but he pulls it off with natural ease, making the whole thing that much funnier. And Martin’s character is just on the verge of being a normal guy, but with just that extra bit of pathos and frustration to show how easy it would be for him to wind up on Warren’s path. There’s a lot of verbal humor between the two. In fact, there’s a lot of humor, period; one of the best moments is when Larry finally deals with his ex-girlfriend, but there are funny moments almost constantly. Some of it’s subtle, and some of it is just short of the wild takes of Martin’s earlier comedies.
It gets to be downright satirical with its take on relationships and loneliness. Through Larry’s journey, the film shows many different forms of being a lonely guy. You can be a lonely guy when you’re just dumped, or when you’ve been alone for some time. You can be a lonely guy whether you’re rich or poor, employed or unemployed. You can be a lonely guy with no friends, a few friends, or surrounded by friends. You can be massively popular and still be a lonely guy. And you can find the girl of your dreams and still be a lonely guy. Although it’s still a romantic comedy to the degree that it has the audience rooting for Larry and Iris to get together, the overall effect is such that there’s a sense of parody about the whole thing… and not just that it’s parodying romantic comedies, but that it’s parodying the entire concept of centering one’s life around romance.
It’s a very smart film, and a funny one besides. Most of the time, a “romantic comedy” is so called because it’s romantic and it has an upbeat tone; the “comedy” part is in the classical sense of “a story that ends happily”. But with The Lonely Guy, it’s a comedy in the modern sense as well. Romance provides the setting for the comedy, but it’s the comedy that will reward people who watch this film.