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Movie Review: ‘STEVE! (martin)’ looks at past, present in a lovely, intimate 2-part documentary

Steve Martin has never been one to follow any sort of playbook. It is fitting the first official documentary about his life is similarly unconventional: A freewheeling story told in two parts, one part focused on “Then” and one part focused on “Now” (kind of) with both parts debuting on Apple TV+ on Friday. Both documentarian and subject are trying, the best they can, to make sense of whatever “Steve Martin” is.

Directed by self-proclaimed superfan Morgan Neville (the Oscar-winner who has told the story of Fred Rogers and Anthony Bourdain), “STEVE! (martin)” never commits to one form. Like its subject, it allows itself to be a little looser, utilizing every technique available to help paint a truer picture of Martin, a man so enigmatic that his close friends don't even seem to have a handle on him. He’d hardly be the first performer to save it all for the stage: Martin says that it was somewhat comforting to be able to put on a persona during shows. He was also able to continually reinvent himself. Who else could have walked away from stand-up just as they’d reached rock star status?

And so the medium becomes a kitchen sink: There is stock footage, animation, reenactment, home videos, movie clips, stand-up segments, talk show appearances, new interviews with famous friends (Martin and Jerry Seinfeld in conversation, for example), scripted voiceover and some fly-on-the-wall footage of him just spending time with Martin (Marty) Short bike riding, walking through town, playing cards and workshopping jokes for their show. It's probably the only way to capture an artist who has taken the hyphenate to absurd levels: Magician/balloon artist/novelist/banjo player/screenwriter/essayist/art collector/joke teller/cartoonist/movie star/father/husband/friend. What am I missing?

For anyone who’s read Martin's memoir “Born Standing Up,” “Then” might not be especially revelatory, but it’s all context and it remains interesting to hear Martin reflect candidly on a moment that now feels “like a blip.” While he might not have had a plan, he did possess a keen sense of when he’d hit a dead end, whether that be in magic, stand-up or even movies.

His life in movies is saved for “Now,” and you see someone still struggling with the agony of never really knowing if a thing would work. Everyone misses once in a while, but Martin had a brutal back-to-back of a wild success in “The Jerk” followed by an epic flop in “Pennies From Heaven” and that was just the start of his rollercoaster in Hollywood. He’s kind of moved on from that (and “Mixed Nuts”) but also kind of not. He said he had to do 40 movies to get five good ones. He's being a little sarcastic, but hopefully he knows that a lot of people out there love far more than a measly five Steve Martin movies.

It is especially fascinating to get a glimpse into his complex relationship with critics and how he found an outlet in writing both fiction and non-fiction. Personally, I wish even more time had been spent on the movies and his writings, like “Shopgirl.” Everyone is bound to have a favorite that this doesn't cover enough.

If you want to keep Steve Martin in your mind as that wild and crazy guy, or George Banks or Navin or Lucky Day (the list could go on), and don’t care about his relationship with his father, his decision to become a father late in life, reflections on his art collection, the memorabilia he kept over the years and the things he didn’t do that he wishes he did, these films might not be for you. There are no rules to being a fan. For some, biography can mean everything. For others, it matters little when there’s so much joy to be had without it.

Martin, who has been both an open book in some ways and also guarded in others, is really quite vulnerable here — especially in “Now.” Neville captures him looking at the script for “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” and reflecting on his late friend and co-star John Candy. There was a great monologue, he said, in which Candy’s Del Griffith tells the story of his life. Martin recalled bawling off camera as Candy delivered it. And yet for whatever reason, it was chopped down to a line or two. He reads a bit of it and starts to cry.

There’s more, but if that sounds intriguing, you should really just watch it. Neville has said it doesn’t matter which order. And what does it add up to? On a certain level he’s still an enigma. It’s hard for mere mortals to comprehend a half century of otherworldly fame, but it’s also just nice to watch a familiar face reflect on how he has, at 78, finally found happiness. Besides, Steve Martin’s story is not even remotely finished. These are just two parts.

“STEVE! (martin) a documentary in 2 parts,” an Apple TV+ release streaming on Friday, is rated TV-MA. “Then” is 98 minutes. “Now” is 95 minutes. Together, they add up to three stars out of four.