Review: Steve (Martin): A Documentary in 2 Pieces Explores the Life and Career of an Isolated Man

In 1980, at the ripe old age of 35, Steve Martin was the most famous and successful stand-up comic in the world. Some likened his popularity to that of a rock star, in terms of the fervor that followed him wherever he performed. At it was at that time, he decided to walk away from life as a comedian to focus on acting, writing, and filmmaking. The new two-part documentary, Steve! (Martin): A Documentary in 2 Pieces, ends its first chapter, titled “Then,” after painstakingly walking us through the personal and professional struggles Martin went through to achieve such heights. Initially, he was an acquired taste as a comic, but he come out of magic, theater, and a type of performance art that he decided to make funny. And he failed quite frequently in the beginning.

At times, the film feels like a psychiatrist’s evaluation of Martin’s mental health: his father withheld affection and was critical of his every move, deep into his success. In interviews, Martin opens up about seeking his father’s approval at every turn of his career choices, and his sister backs up everything he’s saying. He didn’t have children until fairly recently for fear of being just such a parent. Director Morgan Neville (20 Feet from StardomWon’t You Be My Neighbor?, and the Anthony Bourdain doc, Roadrunner) has access to so much archival material—thanks to Martin keeping track of his entire life in weirdly precise detail—that his life story seems incredibly complete. What material wasn’t captured by Martin (especially behind-the-scenes on his films) is supplemented with very funny artwork (turned into animations) from illustrator-collaborator Harry Bliss. Most of this is captured in the film’s second chapter, “Now.”

Beginning with his first starring role in The Jerk, the second part meticulously goes through the ups and down of Martin’s film career, which transitioned into writing for the theater, essays, and autobiography. He met current wife, Anne Stringfield, in the mid-2000s and had his first child in his mid-60s. And by the end, we realize that we have watched a profile of a man searching for some small piece of happiness and contentment that involves mixing it up with other people. We see a few brief interviews with colleagues who know him best (Tina Fey, Lorne Michaels), but it’s the interactions with comic partner Martin Short that reveal the most. Scenes of the two of them going joke by joke through their stage show are a genuine treat, as they weigh in on which insults work best.

Normally when a subject consistently seems aware that a doc film crew is watching his every move, it’s distracting, but director Neville uses it to show us a man who has spent much of his life in isolation and how he’s adjusting to interactions and a level of exposure he’s simply not used to. It’s a fascinating journey through a complex, thoughtful, contemplative, analytical mind that excelled at being a professional idiot. It’s a fantastic documentary, and even if you already love Steve Martin, I suspect you’ll love him even more after watching this.

The film is now streaming on Apple TV+.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.