Like so many young people longing for greener pastures or even the fresh air of familiarity, I spent most of my days as a teenager masturbating feverishly to and with whatever passed for what I thought might approximate a human vagina. These were the days before unfettered web access, instant porn, and American Pies, so if this meant couch cushions lined with dust rags, bathroom rugs, or pillows rolled tight like so many cigars, so be it. My fantasies also included the occasional baked good, whole watermelon, or that prized, almost mythical piece known as the love doll, but without even the comfort of a token allowance, I was limited to whatever happened to pass before my eyes in the mad rush to beat the clock and avoid parental discovery. There were no girls, of course, and no hint of such exotic abstractions as love, friendship, or fleeting connection, so days not in school were usually spent plotting – and achieving – such noble goals as seeing how long I could go without leaving the house. As I lived in an apartment, I could even check the mail without having the sun reduce my grim desires to ashen failure. I was depressed, sad, and achingly immobile, but I had Warren Evans. As the moral center of Arthur Hiller’s misunderstood and criminally underrated The Lonely Guy, Warren was my last hope for better days ahead, despite being the most hopelessly pathetic character from any feature film made during the 1980s. But he alone could understand my plight, and he may yet again depending on the breaks a tragic existence may or may not have in store. He’s Gibraltar incarnate; a dependable sure-fire slap in a shifting sea of superficiality. He’s bald and lazy and unkind and suicidal, and he’s everything I needed him to be, then and now.
While Steve Martin’s Larry Hubbard is the star of this low-budget event (but not so low that they couldn’t swing a guest spot from then-hip Dr. Joyce Brothers), Charles Grodin’s Warren best typifies the fruitless pursuits of spectacle-wearing men who substitute house plants for flesh and blood companionship. Oh, and call them – yes, the plants – “guys” because, as Warren instructs the newly lonely Larry on their first meeting, “They can be your friends, if not your only friends.” The advice is a bit misleading, however, as Warren populates his apartment with much more than potted pals, including cardboard cutouts of then-famous celebrities. Dolly Parton appears to be the most valuable in the collection, and Warren is not above throwing a party with nothing but his 2-D sidekicks and an impromptu dinner for company. He flirts, cackles, and winks in every conceivable direction, and no one’s leaving early to catch a better shindig. Warren’s but one blip in the teeming mass known as New York City, but on this night – every night, if he so chooses – he’s the center ring at the only circus in town worth a damn. Curiously, I had to have these cutouts myself, but with my hometown being what it was, I could only swing a Captain Kirk, as the sci-fi curio shop was the one place insightful enough to know its market of virginal introverts.
Warren’s life, when he’s not playing chess with a mean-spirited robot or cuddling up to a virtual fire via the VCR, is consumed with idle chatter – to himself, yes, with eyes downcast and heart beating to no real end, but also on that ubiquitous park bench with Larry. These disastrous attempts at communication define the movie’s essential appeal, and do much to keep it on track after numerous scenes of vintage Martin mugging. Larry, of course, finds a woman and loses and gains her throughout, so it’s Warren we turn to for an ice cold glass of reality. We know the endlessly chipper Steve Martin will eventually get laid and be happy, despite those swings into desperation, but Warren will remain bereft, even if by the end he’s ready to give up on a suicidal leap because a fat, toothless halfwit sounds better than nothing. “Teeth you can always fix,” he reasons, right after climbing down from the ever-popular jumping spot on the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s enough, which makes him ever more the tragic figure. He’s doomed to be the guy Larry is always setting up, with little but awkward silences and clock-watching on the bitter horizon. After a few such experiences, he’ll return to the cardboard, or perhaps the much-discussed, yet unseen, Melanie, the girl who left him high and dry for the man who was robbing her apartment.
Oh yes, those chats. For some, they might appear to stop the story cold, but how else are we to become familiarized with the fascinating argument related to the dearth of bald bums? And why shouldn’t the price of a haircut be based on how much you’ve got, rather than a standard rate that treats comb-overs and TV hunks as equal under god? Consider: “You know what gets me? I go to get a haircut, they charge me, like, four bucks, which is the same amount of money they would charge anybody to come in. But say a guy like Michael Landon goes into the shop where I go, they would charge him four bucks, yet he’s got, like, a hundred times more hair than I do. By rights, they should be charging Michael Landon like four hundred dollars.” Who but a madman could disagree? And then there’s the airtight logic concerning naps: “I don’t like to take naps. I don’t like to wake up more than once a day, because when I first wake up I get that shock of who I am and everything. I really don’t like to do that more than once a day.” And not even Emerson himself could piece together a better approach to life than when Warren encourages Larry to get a canine companion: “Dogs are great. They leap all over you. They lick your face. They don’t even have to like you. It’s their instinct. Hitler had a dog. That dog went crazy over him.” Sure, he wore bad sweaters and never saw the bright side of any day, but in a loveless world, he knew the next best thing. To a small degree, we all have to fake it.
Having seen The Lonely Guy at least three dozen times, though rarely since high school, it’s clear that I still have great use for Warren Evans, and will likely never outgrow his reach. He’s the guy who’d rather be off by himself, only he’s all too familiar with Ambrose Bierce’s dictum that to be alone is to be in bad company. He needs a sounding board, but does little but ensure the very same will abandon him for someone less single-mindedly grim. He’s crippled by anhedonia, but don’t get him started on lamb with mint sauce. He has his small pleasures – his fleeting comforts – when he knows they’re but temporary distractions on the unrelenting march to the grave. He’s a watcher, a chair-bound cynic, and a fatalist of the most distinguished rank. And he’s not about to be part of your happy ending.