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‘STEVE! (Martin) A Documentary in Two Pieces’ Review: Morgan Neville’s Apple TV+ Doc Portrait of the Comedian Is Half-Good

“My whole life is backwards,” muses Steve Martin during the second “episode” of Morgan Neville’s STEVE! (Martin) A Documentary in Two Pieces.

The point that Martin is making stems not from some Benjamin Button-style anomaly, but from his contention that he has gone from being riddled with anxiety in his 30s to achieving contentment and happiness in his 70s.

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While I would posit that this isn’t all that remarkable — “Finding wisdom and peace with age” seems ideal and not unusual — there’s truth to Martin’s bigger point. Biopics and bio-docs tend to have familiar arcs that allow us to reconcile the contradictions of complicated lives; Martin’s biography has no such arc.

Neville’s approach, in the annoyingly titled documentary that I will henceforth only call STEVE!, is to bifurcate Martin’s life.

The 98-minute “Then” looks at the origins of Martin’s comic style — a pastiche of classic vaudevillian traditions with a ’70s-specific deconstructive approach — and traces the circuitous road to unprecedented success onstage. Then, Martin walked away from stand-up.

The 95-minute “Now” looks at Martin’s life, well, now. It follows his post-stand-up career and his personal maturation, examining Martin as a movie star, husband and father, as a humorist and an art collector, plus his return to the stage as part of a beloved comic duo with Martin Short.

Now normally, this is when I go, “They’re called episodes, Morgan, it’s not like you reinvented the wheel.” But “Then” and “Now” are wholly separate, except that they’re also companion pieces. They have different formal approaches, different tones and Neville uses a slate of different collaborators. They’re as distinct as a comedian who does exaggerated wild-and-crazy prop comedy and another comedian who does erudite pieces in The New Yorker.

Together, the two films in STEVE! handle that task of image reconciliation in a way that sometimes validates Neville’s approach, but in their separateness comes the great frustration of this ambitious project. “Then” isn’t very good and “Now” feels mostly like a very sweet and generally appealing denouement and not a story in and of itself. So “Now” doesn’t work to its fullest without “Then,” and “Then” probably doesn’t work at all without “Now.”

“Then” takes an archival footage-driven approach. Martin narrates, without any clear distinction as to when he’s reciting from old journals, or memoirs, or when he’s answering questions from Neville. Other key figures are heard exclusively off-camera.

The purpose here, again, is reinforcing separateness: It helps to think of STEVE! as akin to Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour, on which it wouldn’t make thematic sense to go from “You Belong With Me” straight into “Shake It Off,” even if on a different tour it might be fine. There’s a gulf created by telling Martin’s story in two parts; cutting back and forth from the manic 20-something Martin dancing and gesticulating and tearing up the stage to the 70-something Martin reflecting on it would spoil the distance that Martin clearly sees as existing between the two and that Neville wants to reinforce.

But understanding the purpose is not the same as enjoying the product. “Then” isn’t very good, but it’s never bad, almost entirely because the footage at Neville’s disposal is reliably exceptional. The clips of Martin’s earliest stand-up appearances and the opportunity to watch his voice come into its own are a pleasure. Even if Martin has talked and written about this before, if you’re even the slightest bit nerdy about comedy in general and stand-up specifically, it’s fascinating to hear the former philosophy student break down the complex mechanics of what he was attempting. Martin Mull, with thorough admiration, goes with the much simpler, “It was aggressively stupid and aggressive stupidity, you can’t ignore it.”

I would say it’s hard to imagine how somebody with a sensibility this goofily esoteric became a global phenomenon, but in the past five years I’ve watched extended documentaries on everybody from Garry Shandling to George Carlin to Andy Kaufman to Albert Brooks. Something was in the cultural water at that moment. Still, it’d be hard for your average Gen Z viewer to really get how huge Steve Martin was in the late 1970s, and “Then” conveys that stardom.

However, it’s astonishing how few of the artistic choices that Neville makes in “Then” work in an immediately satisfying way. Nothing in the rhythms and pacing mirrors anything in Martin’s style or voice. Nothing in the animation that brings some of the pictures to life mirrors anything in Martin’s style or voice. Nothing in Alan Lowe’s editing or Darian Sahanaja’s score or the myriad period soundtrack selections mirror anything in Martin’s style or voice. One could argue that the choices are digressive anti-documentary choices in the way Martin’s comedy was digressive anti-comedy, creating a jumble of ideas and moments that can only come into focus with time and age and the documentary’s second piece. I buy that, except that Martin was hilarious and “Then” is more frequently irritating. It’s comprehensible as an exercise, but less than desirable as a storytelling decision.

“Now” immediately plants its flag as something more amusingly mellow, as an on-camera Martin starts the film making poached eggs on toast and admitting to how boring this must be as entertainment. He’s wrong. It isn’t boring at all being embedded in Steve Martin’s current life. It’s just soft and sentimental and reflective, in contrast to the cacophony of “Then.”

Martin has, per the documentary, reached a contemplative phase of his life. “Now” is all about sitting back and watching the fruits of that contemplation, whether it’s an extended conversation with Jerry Seinfeld about the nature of comedy, or several wonderful sequences with Short pitching punchlines for their two-person stage show, or lingering on the fringes of a card game with Short and Martin’s wife, Anne.

Here, most of Neville’s choices work well. The editing mirrors the relaxed looseness of this phase in Martin’s life. The animated sequences, courtesy of frequent collaborator Harry Bliss, are pleasantly attuned to Martin’s current voice. The clips are well-chosen and Martin at least touches on a lot of the film roles you would want acknowledged, his disappointment about the failure of Pennies From Heaven and his sadness about John Candy’s passing both still visceral.

There are times when the two documentaries play well together. In the first, Martin’s father is an unknowable and loveless figure. In the second, as an older and more reflective man, Martin understands his father on a new level — Martin is careful to keep his own daughter out of the documentary, finding a very funny workaround — and even comes to love and miss him.

It’s also interesting to see Martin’s approach to comedy become less intellectual and more geared toward immediate pleasures — Short’s constant presence is good for many laughs — and to see some of that introspection parlayed into his ongoing and very lucrative interest in art.

In “Now,” Neville is able to give a Grand Unified Theory of Steve Martin — lots of loneliness before, lots of togetherness today — and I guess it wouldn’t work as well without “Then,” which I guess I just wish worked better than it does.

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