Review | ‘Steve! (Martin)’ is a smart and charming portrait of a smart and charming man

(3 stars)

“I’m so proud to receive this,” said Steve Martin, accepting the 2005 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. “The only significant American award for comedy, except for money.” It’s a perfectly judged quip, delivered with late-period Martin’s trademark deadpan grandiosity. But it’s not quite true. A comedian’s significance can also be measured by the pedigree of the biographical documentary that, if he achieves any success, will at some point bear his name.

“Steve! (Martin): A Documentary in Two Pieces” is directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville, who also made the hugely successful Fred Rogers movie “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” It is produced by enviably hip indie production company A24 as a glossy Apple Original. And if sheer quantity is any marker, the decision to break the film into two feature-length installments, titled “Then” (94 minutes) and “Now” (97 minutes), gives you some idea just how seriously Neville takes a comedian considered by many to be, or to have been, the funniest man in the world.

The approach has its drawbacks, though, yielding two very different halves. “Then,” the first and lesser, is pretty standard stuff, covering in enjoyable but repetitive detail the period of Martin’s gradual stand-up ascendancy, from little-regarded support act — vying for the approval of an emotionally withholding father — to selling out entire stadiums. Martin’s narration is frank without being particularly revealing of anything except an odd combination of honesty and reserve. He simply doesn’t seem to much enjoy looking back, making him a rather reluctant companion on this archival journey through his early years: a tour guide hurrying us gawkers past monuments to which he feels little connection, impatient to get home for lunch.

Lunch is two poached eggs on toast, which he prepares at the beginning of the much more engaging “Now.” This second episode dips in and out of Martin’s movie career, more often dwelling wryly on cautionary tales of hubris brought low (“Pennies from Heaven,” “Mixed Nuts”) than on his many successes. It takes in interviews with Jerry Seinfeld, Tina Fey, Lorne Michaels, Adam Gopnik and Eric Idle, who all agree, as does Martin himself, that his characters shared with their creator a quality of melancholy, a longing.

“And the only person who can fix that [longing],” says Fey, unable to resist, “is Martin Short.” Much of the pleasure of “Now” comes from the candid moments between Martin and his bestie Short, both enjoying a new blush of popularity with TV hit “Only Murders in the Building,” and collaborating on a two-man show for which they workshop lines like “He has all the sex appeal of a hot-dog burp trapped in a face mask.”

The two films could have been combined into one tighter and more effective feature, but even as bifurcated and somewhat baggy as it is, “Steve!” is a smart and charming portrait of a smart and charming man who keeps it all willfully, unfashionably apolitical, and who carefully avoids talking trash about anyone other than himself. Indeed, there is little here for the prurient: Martin’s divorce is mentioned briefly and without rancor; his courtship with his wife, Anne, is described straightforwardly by both even though falling in love over the phone with your New Yorker fact-checker is, empirically, hilarious. He politely insists that their 9-year-old daughter doesn’t appear on-screen and when he flips through his “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” script and comes across a monologue meant for the late John Candy, he is genuinely embarrassed by the tears that suddenly overcome him.

It’s strange to find a celebrity’s innate reticence such a compelling quality. But we’ve had lots of stories of a ravenous public devouring the things it loves — if there’s the tiniest hairline crack in your armor, fame can get in like a flesh-eating microbe. Steve Martin is inspiring for having avoided that, and if it was only by closing some part of himself off, whatever loneliness that caused him along the way, it is lovely to see it all come good in this pioneering comedy legend’s beautifully contented and creative third act. This time round, he gets to enjoy being funny, just for fun.

TV-MA. Streaming on Apple TV Plus from March 29. Mild bad language and some sexual references. 191 minutes.

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