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A Documentary in Two Pieces’ Review

Why does Steve Martin need a two-part documentary? He doesn’t, of course, although Martin himself divided his career into separate chapters, any one of which could support its own film — stand-up comedian, Hollywood movie star, playwright, novelist, bluegrass musician and most recently, “Only Murders in the Building” co-creator and star — so fans aren’t likely to complain about getting extra time with such a private subject.

Normally, a documentarian with access to a celebrity of Martin’s caliber would pick a focus, or else try to generate some kind of career-encompassing overview. Not Morgan Neville, the Oscar-winning director who so poignantly profiled children’s TV host Fred Rogers in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” While similarly beloved, Martin isn’t such an open book, despite having written with self-deprecating candor about the obstacles and inspirations to his comedy career in his memoir, “Born Standing Up.” For this Apple TV+ exclusive, Neville attempts something wholly unconventional, splitting the project into two distinct feature-length pieces, “Then” and “Now,” which take radically different forms.

The first part is a fairly straightforward, largely archival look at the first half of Martin’s life, featuring rare journals and personal recordings from his childhood in Orange County, Calif. (where he dreamed of being a magician and scored an early job at Disneyland), to the moment he decided to step away from stand-up comedy altogether. That was 1980. Three decades later, I scooped up tickets to see Martin headline a comedy show at Just for Laughs in Montreal, hoping to see the legend perform live, but instead of telling jokes, Martin came out with his banjo and proceeded to give a folk music concert. The joke was on us.

Martin had effectively slammed the door on that part of the persona — although in a career of surprises, he would reinvent himself again much later, performing opposite “Three Amigos” co-star Martin Short in “Only Murders.” “That’s so amazing. You were a single stand-up and then found you liked working as a team,” remarks Jerry Seinfeld in a generous (and frequently insightful) sit-down interview with Martin that appears in the deeply personal second part. A fluffy Seinfeld sound bite opens “Then” as well: “This guy was getting people so happy,” he says.

Cultural tastes change so quickly, especially when it comes to what makes people laugh, that there’s a built-in challenge to recapping any comedian’s early career — which no doubt explains why Neville steers clear of “King Tut” (a song that younger listeners find problematic). Full of happy feet and flailing limbs, the 94-minute “Then” episode seems better suited to audiences old enough to remember Martin’s live shows, since clips and recaps hardly do them justice. Still, the film does a fine job of deconstructing what made his act so revolutionary: While other comics were doing political material, here was a “clean guy in a white suit” being silly.

Instead of shaping his performances around traditionally timed punchlines, Martin poked fun at the codes of comedy. Like the parody of a bad lounge act, he cheated at juggling, made misshapen balloon animals, wore novelty headgear (bunny ears and rubber arrow gags), took banjo breaks and wriggled and danced like the world’s most obnoxious party guest — whom he dubbed “a wild and crazy guy.” Johnny Carson loved him. Hip crowds bought his albums and adopted his catchphrases (“Well, excu-u-use me!”).

Before Martin’s hair went white, he grew it out. And when it did turn, that made the contrast between childish routines and his old-enough-to-know-better appearance that much funnier. Martin’s key innovation came in subverting the indicators other comics used to tell people when to bark their approval. “That’s not real laughter,” he tells Neville. “What if I created tension and never released it? … The audience would have to pick their own place to laugh.” Martin’s approach confounded some, like the patrons of the Playboy Club, but it ultimately proved so popular (especially after hosting early episodes of “Saturday Night Live”) that he was soon selling out arenas.

And then Martin pulled the plug — a decision that “Then” only half explains. There were the anxiety attacks, the way work preempted his private life, the impossibility of impressing his father. As this film/episode comes to a close, Martin still has an immensely popular movie career ahead of him as the screenwriter and star of “The Jerk,” “Roxanne” and more. Instead of picking up there, the “Now” portion skips forward more than four decades to join Martin in the present.

“How did I go from riddled with anxiety in my 30s to 75 and really happy?” Martin muses, playing along with an entirely different kind of documentary — one where the subject gamely invites cameras into his personal space. Based on the first half, audiences have been primed to expect a film-by-film tour through his big-screen career, but apart from dwelling on the disappointment of “Pennies from Heaven,” Martin seems uninterested in telling stories about that four-decade stretch (most of which he already shared in “Number One Is Walking,” a cartoon memoir illustrated by Harry Bliss).

So instead they get something considerably more intimate, as Martin draws back the curtain on his life. At times, in mock reality-TV fashion, he does banal things like poach eggs for breakfast or play cards with Short and second wife Anne Stringfield, teasing the camera crew for filming even when he fails to see the interest. But he’s not the only one here who can work magic. Neville and his team have unearthed revealing moments from the archives, ranging from a tear-filled Charlie Rose interview to a cruel red-carpet stunt in which Paul Kaye’s Dennis Pennis character asks Martin, “How come you’re not funny anymore?”

Where “Then” felt like an exercise in putting comedy under a microscope, “Now” is genuinely amusing, as when Martin and Short workshop jokes for their live show, gently roasting one another in the process. There’s a melancholy to Martin that his more effusive amigo helps to counteract, and it’s touching to see how this dynamic operates behind the scenes, even if both cutups are clearly playing to the cameras. (Former partners, family members and longtime friends, including John McEuen and Adam Gopnik, reveal additional dimensions of the man.)

Nothing in the first episode quite prepares audiences for where Neville plans to take them in the follow-up. Sure, the roots of the unhappy dynamic with his dad are there, paying off Martin’s own late-life parenting efforts, but “Now” would likely move people just as well if screened by itself. It’s so different in form from “Then” that the films feel like separate answers to a single assignment, rather than two halves of a complete project. If anything, they’re disconnected pieces of a far larger puzzle — one that comes into greater focus when considered alongside multiple memoirs, books and plays (like the self-reflexive “Wasp,” which Neville stages with Finn Whitrock in the role of the patriarch), original cartoons and, yes, even Martin’s beloved banjo music.

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