Thursday, March 31, 2016

Biloxi Blues (1988)

I remember when I first went to see Biloxi Blues in its original theatrical release back in 1988, and having low expectations for the experience. Not that I wasn’t a fan of its writer, Neil Simon, but I just didn’t see how a “Part II” of a trilogy, and a service comedy at that, could be counted among the writers more accomplished works. I mean, you pretty much habe al the clichés: raw, rookie recruits, the hard-ass drill sergeant, the character evolutions, the pat ending, etc. But damned if Simon doesn’t yet again come out with another winner – a winning story with smart dialogue that transcends its form, giving as several hearty laughs and at least two memorable lump-in-the-throat moments.

Eugene Morris Jerome (now played by Broderick, portrayer of the character on Broadway in this and Brighton Beach Memoirs), is eight years older and a U.S. Army draftee on the way to basic training in Biloxi, Mississippi. It is mid 1945, during the last months of WWII, and he and all his fellow recruits are as nervous as hell. Their anxiety isn’t exactly helped by their introduction to their new drill sergeant, a man named Merwin Toomey (what a name!), who can best be described as eccentric – he dispenses discipline with the best of the regular army regulars but has a quirky intellectualism too; he knows intuitively exactly what his men’s strengths and weaknesses are, and how best to exploit them for his advantage.

Jerome continues to write daily in his journal, observing his fellow recruits. One in particular fascinates him, a fellow Jew named Epstein, but he quickly becomes the butt of everyone else’s jokes – and isn’t exactly a hit with Toomey either, especially when his lesson in security backfires after Epstein returns money to a careless soldier – money taken by Toomey to prove a point. And whe Eugene’s journal is seized and read aloud by the others, his suspicion of Epstein as a homosexual proves all the more damaging after a man gets arrested for sodomy and his partner gets away, unknown. The other man is eventually caught, but the camaraderie among the me is still tenous at best. Only a 48-hour pass helps alleviate tensions, particularly for Eugene, who manages to lose his virginity and fall in love on the same day (with different women).

But Toomey seems to become more and more unhinged, and he shows up drunk at the barracks, threatening to kill Eugene with a loaded pistol. Eugene bravely takes his place, and we learn Toomey derangement may be exacerbated by his imminent reassignment and despair that he’s never really turned a grunt into a efficient killing machine. The other unit members return; Toomey, expecting to be court marshaled, is granted amnesty by all, and administered punishment by Epstein: 200 push-ups, just like he wished for in a game where all the men had to reveal their fantasies. WWII ends with most privates returning home, without seeing any action, but Jerome still recalls it as the best time of his life.

There’s a hell of a lot to like here, and most of it, expectedly, involves the scenes between the recruits in the barracks. Yes, we get the standard army conventions, but with a twist – and of course, class-A dialogue. It’s a tall order to write smart for characters we generally know to be pretty plain rhetoricians, but Simon pulls it off by wring smart basic dialogue for most of the men, except Eugene and Toomey (who gets away with it because his hoity talk is sort of a twist on the bellowing, barking commander).

And the scenes these lines serve are well-developed, with at least three standing out as wonderful. There’s the moment when Eugene plays a game with the men, in which all of them must reveal what they’d do with their last week on earth. Another involves the aforementioned stealing of Eugene’s diary, what gets revealed, and the men’s often surprising reactions to hearing it. And the final payoff is beautiful, with Toomey crashing – and his redemption in the eyes of the men he trained. What helps makes these scenes work so well is, in part, their unpredictability. They straddle the line between credibility and genuine theatrical surprise – two elements that are not mutually exclusive – and ultimately produce a work that has both grit and pathos.

Credit director Mike Nichols, theatrically trained, for much of this. He so unsung, so often, because he focuses more on clarity of action, letting his actors take center stage, not director. As such, many performances from Nichols films receive the glory – they get to breathe, fully, thanks to their encapsulating narrative fluidity, Christopher Walken, in particular, is marvelous; it’s his best work since The Deer Hunter, and he allows Toomey to be feared, respected and sympathized with – all in equal measure. Broderick has the thankless role of recorder, but it’s no less admirable. I found myself watching him watching others, because he was so convincing as a young Neil Simon.

The love story isn’t bad, either – Daisy Hannigan (who regrettably, and hilariously, changes her name to something far less poetic as revealed in the film’s epilogue), is enduringly played by one of my faves, Peneople Ann Miller, who plays ethereal perfection like a faded photograph cherished by a reminiscent lover. It’s a fine subplot, but it’s marginal, and intentionally so: the real relationship drama here is of the men. And Simon is clearly aware of it too.

And part of the poignancy of the film is what I brought to it this time. Seeing it now, 27 years later, I was struck more by it war theme than before. Having recently done some geneology work, I’ve discovered how many men on my father’s side were affected by the war – two died fighting it, a few others injured, and many emotionally scarred and were not the same again – certainly far different by the time I knew them. The scene of the men on the train reminded me of my grandfather’s diary – on his way to god knows where, being trained to fight god knows what. And I thought more globally, too- the very young the first to be called up for our Great War Machine – yet they are the most impressionable and malleable – easily manipulated and controlled.

Of course, this film has no designs to be a great antiwar film. But in its snapshot of one man’s experience, it still gave me much to think about on the subject of war. Simon delves into yet another realm of uncharted territory, and illuminates that much more of the human condition – through humor, his most potent tool. Just like Eugene.

Stage in Simon’s life: again, pretty obvious.

Rating: ****

Brighton Beach Memoirs (1986)

After penning a series of films that didn’t exactly set the box office on fire, Neil Simon parlayed his recent success on Broadway into his next movie. The result, Brighton Beach Memoirs, an adaptation of his 1983 Tony nominated play, help get the writer out of his screen slump, at least for the time being. He kept Ray Stark on as producer, but found a new studio, Universal, as Columbia wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole after the Slugger’s Wife debacle. Unable to get Matthew Broderick to recreate the stage role that introduced him to the world, Simon instead chose another up-and-comer to fill his proxy character: Johnathan Silverman. The newbie does an admirable job, too; in fact, the entire ensemble does great work here, and in the opinion of this humble blogger, it’s a marvelous return to form for Neil Simon, and easily his best movie since Only When I Laugh.
We go back in time to Simon’s halcyon youth, growing up as a teenager in Brooklyn circa 1937. While the Great Depression was on he wane, troubling news in Europe had families glued to the
radio for the nightly news updates. But for Eugene Morris Jerome, life was all about sex, fantasies about playing for the Yankees, and navigating the troubled waters of familial strife, which seemed to occur on a daily basis, particularly around dinner time. His mom, Kate (Blythe Danner), sends him to the market every ten minutes, his Aunt Blanche, Kate’s sister (Judith Ivey) is a reserved lady mourning the recent death of her husband while rearing a “sickly” young girl and an older girl, Nora, yearning to be a Broadway star (at the expense of high school). Eugene’s dad, Jack, just lost his job and has a heart condition; now he must moonlight as a cab driver. And Eugene’s brother, Stanley, must wrestle with his conscience when he sticks up for a coworker and risks losing his job in the process.

Blanche has festering feelings about being a burden to the family, and it doesn’t help that she wants to date and Irishman from across the street not exactly approved of by sis. With greater economic hardship going on, Stanley, having gotten his job back, figures he can win extra some money at pool to help out, but he loses his whole paycheck when he gets hustled. Chagrined and demoralized, he goes to enlist for the army, but reconsiders at the last minute. Blanche has it out with Kate, Nora has it out with Blanche, and Jack has to play ringleader to this row house of insanity – in he end, they all realize their troubles are nothing compared with Polish relatives in Europe, whom they are now likely to take in after they get safe passage out to London. Eugene records everything in his journal, so that if he “grows up twisted and warped, the world will know why.”

The original one-sheet
I saw this in the theatre way back in early 1987, and certainly respected it, but now, having seen it again with fresh eyes, I can now appreciate it more. I’m impressed now not just by how well-written the dialogue is but how well plotted the storyline is. In most period pieces, it seems the writer/director seems so impressed with how good the period detail is he forgets to tell a story, and the film just floats limply along with long shots of costumes, set design and an overstuffed soundtrack of songs from the era. Here, Simon ensures that much goes on, and never once did I get the feeling it was cluttered or confusing. The characters are all juggled in fresh, invigorating swaths, grounded with dialogue that Simon is wise enough to keep clever but not jokey (with the exception of Eugene).

But there’s also Simon’s trademark pathos here. The looming threat of poverty is a buried theme throughout, and the incipient threat of WWII offers the viewer a sense of dramatic irony that imbues the mood with gravity. But it’s the human interest issues that give us the meatiest dialogue: Blanche, who has the most emotional repression and therefore he best fodder for drama, has some great lines – she had always gotten the most attention for her sickliness, causing Kate to be the neglected one. But now, she treats her youngest daughter the same way, and Nora has become “neglected” in the same was Kate was. I love how the film never advertises this; it’s up to the viewer to make the inference, and extrapolate the film’s main theme, that we unknowingly create life cycles with our children, making it all the more indelible.

Judith Ivey, in a huge turnaround from her previous Simon role in The Lonely Guy, is fantastic as Blanche – sort of Simon’s take on Amanda from The Glass Menagerie. Her breakdown scene is as natural as it is powerful. And Danner stands out for me too – riddled by the critics for being miscast, she steps up to the plate and does a fine job. But the one everyone had a scrutinizing eye on was Johnathan Silverman. Many carped that Broderick was better, and only those who saw the play will know that, but I liked Silverman. He has more of an ethnic conviction about him, and he plays precociously downtrodden pretty well. It will be interesting to see his evolution in the third “Eugene” film, Broadway Bound (after Broderick takes over in the next Biloxi Blues).

The film did decent business – 10 mil at the BO – but didn’t exactly have the critics lining up behind it (and as a result, no Oscar noms). I’m mystified why, but I have a few theories. Simon’s dialogue style had, by now, gotten a bit passé, particularly in movies. The one-liner, vaudeville style was taken over by the hip, clever work of scribes like John Hughes, James L. Brooks and Woody Allen. And period pieces were all about the late 50s/‘60s in 1986, from Vietnam War movies to films like Stand By Me. The 30s were ancient history. Of course it opened on Christmas day, completely eclipsed by Platoon and The Golden Child. If it had come out during the more sedate moth of February, like Woody Allen’s Radio Days did the following year, it might have stood a chance.

Give it another chance. A superb entry into the canon of an equally superb writer.

Stage in Simon’s life: duh!

Rating: ****

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Slugger’s Wife (1985)

Coming off a spoof comedy (The Lonely Guy) and three angsty “dramadies” in a row dealing with estranged parent/child relationships, Neil Simon must’ve figured it was time to return to his roots - good old-fashioned romantic comedy - and the result was 1995’s The Slugger’s Wife. Only it wasn’t exactly Sleepless in the Seattle; the titular lovebirds spend most of the film broken up, and stay broken up even as the end titles roll. But no matter; Simon reunited with his late-70s producer, Ray Stark, and production company, Rastar, and even coaxed acclaimed director Hal Ashby to lens the picture. Talk about a dream team!

The film opens as Atlanta Braves player Darryl Palmer (Michael O Keefe) makes a bet with local club singer Debby Huston (Rebecca De Mornay) that he’ll hit two home runs in the next day’s game or she’ll have to go out with him. She, of course, loses, and the date turns to courtship which leads to marriage, and his love for her is a sort of good-luck-charm that affords him a winning streak that no one dares mess with. Alas, all things must pass: when she feels unfulfilled for having to put her music career on hold, she leaves him, and Darryl mopes his way through despair and loneliness, not to mention a succession of strikeouts that has his manager and teammates deeply concerned. They hatch a series of plots to get Debby back, or at least make Darryl think she’s coming back. Nothing works, so it’s up to Darryl himself to step up to the plate, literally, and make the magic happen sans the girl. He does, and though Debby makes a final, still-Platonic appearance, she vows to “keep the door open” for their mutual love to again become realized some day in the future.

Neil Simon’s waterloo. This is the complete box office and critical disaster that damaged all careers involved and forced Simon to regroup before he could work again in the movies. What happened? Well, despite some clever scenes, mostly near the beginning, this is just not a fun movie to watch. The public seemed to agree, as the film’s 19 million dollar budget was completely sunk to its appalling 1.3 million gross. Daryl spends the bulk of the movie pining for a girl who, despite a few scattered unconvincing lines to the contrary, doesn’t seem to love him. Quite frankly, I’m not convinced he digs her too much either, as her appeal for him is tangled up in the whole good-luck charm thing. The plot contrivances along the way feel like just that, just time-killing mechanisms that commit errors in logic and inconsistencies in human behavior. This 104-minute flick feels like it runs about twice that.

Not them, BTW
And if you’d never told me Simon wrote this script I wouldn’t have guessed it. There are absolutely none of the playwright’s trademark quips, jokes, phrases or routines to be found here (if you listen closely enough you might be able to detect something in the first-date dinner conversation). How did the man get such a tin ear within such a short amount of time? I can only guess that there were uncredited rewrites going on here – leading to or perhaps caused by production problems. Or perhaps he tried to tone down the thickness of his dialogue, misinformed by others that the new wave of young, 80s comedies were more image driven. What he failed to realize was that by now, youth comedies were smarter than ever, having found their voice in writer/director John Hughes – his The Breakfast Club was released earlier that year, as was the smart Rob Reiner film The Sure Thing. 

Is anything salvageable here? Yes – the musical numbers, delightfully dated, help to propel the sluggish plot, and Ashby incorporates them effectively, often as montage sequences which underlie the baseball scenes (helping make good on the advertising tagline, “A love story about two of America’s favorite pastimes.” Yes, I know the other is probably love, but I interpret it to mean pop music). Ashby also puts his 70s indie film skills to good use with a sold yet subtly ragged look; the bedroom scenes are softly ethereal, a la his Shampoo, and the neon-lit barroom scenes have a chummy, brotherly feel, reminiscient of his The Last Detail. Sad that this would be his penultimate work, closing a career cut all too short by a system too myopic to recognize the breadth of his underrated talent.

And then there’s Rebecca De Mornay, whom I’ve always loved, in a role that would, under different circumstances, be tailor-made for her: the cool sexpot who needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle – most of the time. She’s got a smart, sly attitude, often masking deep insecurities, that helps to elevate the material she’s given. One scene in particular reminded me of the elevated train scene in Risky Business: Darryl goes down on her (under the sheets), pretending to explain baseball maneuvers (probably the only reason this otherwise innocuous film was slapped with a PG-13 rating). De Mornay smolders in this scene, despite being fully clad; it’s another sad reminder of a career that’s could’ve gone further. Thank god for DVD!

The fact that this was pretty much an unqualified disaster makes it a pretty good marker for the end of Simon’s “first act” (he’d love the metaphor); hereafter he would focus almost entirely on television (from whence he came) and his Brighton Beach trilogy for stage and screen (the first part of which would be his next movie). 

Part of Simon’s life: None, to which he, I’m sure, would attest. However, given his paltry output at the time, perhaps he feared that his breakup with Marsha Mason would lead to a writer’s block, not unlike the protagonist of this ill-fated work.

Rating: **

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Lonely Guy (1984)

By the mid 80s, the quiet, cerebral comedy (Annie Hall, The Goodbye Girl, 10) was out, and the broad, satirical comedy was in, thanks to the surprise success of movies like Animal House, Airplane! and Porky’s (all genre creators). Bad news for a scribe like Neil Simon, who got about broad as he could with Seems Like Old Times. But adapt or perish, as they say, and so, in 1984, he attached himself to the film version of The Lonely Guy's Book of Life by Bruce Jay Friedman, who co-wrote Simon’s 1972 hit, The Heartbreak Kid. But Simon’s was not the only writing credit on the picture; curiously, he’s credited with “adaptation,” while Ed Weinberger and Stan Daniels (Taxi. Mary Tyler Moore) got actual screenplay credit. My suspicion is that the latter two rewrote Simon’s screenplay, while still giving him story credit for essentially taking a nonfiction book of human nature and assuming the thankless task of cobbling a story out of it.

The result is a tonal mixed bag. The broad stuff, like the sight gags and Steve Martin’s buffoonish protagonist, which feels left over from his character in The Jerk, feels at odds with the more observational humor (typified by the dialogue between Martin and a fellow lonely guy played by Charles Grodin), which clearly has Simon’s name written all over it. Not sure how production went along on this one, but my guess is that Simon wouldn’t  exactly have very fond memories of it. The reviews weren’t so good and the BO was meager: a mere 6 million, not helped by its graveyard release date of January 27th.

Martin is Larry Hubbard, a greeting card writer (a bad one, inexplicably praised by his superior), recently jilted by a non-so-monogamous girlfriend and now a self-proclaimed “Lonely Guy,” part of a NY subculture, the movie wishes to imagine, that must while away all those sad nights of solitude with the company of houseplants, cardboard cutouts of celebrities, dogs, and other lonely guys. Charles Grodin is Warren, who falls into this last category, and he helps his friend navigate the treacherous lonely guy waters to find his true love: in this case, a quirky blonde woman named Iris, who knows all about the LG persona. But a series of inconveniences keeps our two would-be lovebirds apart for the better part of the movie, and during the rest, it’s her fear of commitment. But when she marries a womanizing cad (Steve Lawrence, who does all too good a job with this performance), she realizes there’s no joy without pain, and meets Hubbard again when she stops his suicide with her own on the Manhattan Bride.
The Lonely Guy was pummeled by the critics on its initial release, but it isn’t really that bad, so long as you’re prepared for Martin doing his usual slapstick routine, and not for a more serious-minded adaptation of the book on which it’s based. That’s the problem for Simon, who no doubt penned a witty, socially observant chat-com about the state of a single guy in the big city. But once Weinberger and Daniels were attached, it’s likely their more spoofy approach overshadowed, and excised, Simon’s more subtle moments. I could tell the stuff Simon wrote: the scene between Larry and Warren on the park bench, for example, in which they discuss why the men who have no need for perfect hair, like bums, always seem to possess it. Or Warren’s aversion to naps because he doesn’t want to wake up with the despair of his unchanged identity more than once a day. But the scenes that everyone remembers are the bigger ones – the spotlight in the restaurant, all the other Lonely Guys jumping off the bridge, Larry in bed with the two blondes and Dr. Joyce Brothers. Call it a tale of two comic stylings, and never the twain shall meet.

No, they don’t jibe, but if you’re patient, they both work on their own merits. And it did bring back more memories of my HBO movie-watching youth (see the Max Dugan Returns review), when I’d see films umpteen times until I memorized every line of dialogue, at least from the good ones. I also recall this year being a big one for Judith Ivey – she had a promising film career ahead of her – but after starring in several fops her star faded (The Woman in Red, anyone?), and she focused pretty much on Broadway. A pity; she had a daffy yet wise way about her, sort of a slightly more grounded Teri Garr.

Simon’s marginal involvement saved him on this one; not to be the case with the next.

Stage in Simon’s life: surely the Lonely Guy days of his urban bachelorhood.

Rating: ***

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Max Dugan Returns (1983)

1983’s Max Dugan Returns can best be described as a crossroads of sorts for Simon. It was his last film with then-wife and frequent star Marsha Mason, and the first to star Mathew Broderick (starring in this at the same time he headlined Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs on Broadway), who would go on to star in and represent Simon (in his youth) in several comedies throughout the 80s and 90s. It was also Simon’s most mainstream film to date, transcending the talkiness and soul-baring of previous works and emphasizing a more opened-up approach – one more in step with the current Hollywood product of the time. A modest hit, it grossed a bit less than twice its budget, but certainly nowhere near the numbers we saw with the previous decade’s The Goodbye Girl or Chapter Two. Simon’s name was no longer a guarantee of success, and it no longer would appear in front of the title.

Mason plays Nora McPhee, a widowed high school English teacher living modestly somewhere in California with her son, Michael (Matthew Broderick). Down on her luck of late (thanks to a her car being stolen along with all her graded exams), she gets a spiritual uplift after meeting the detective assigned her case, Brian Costello, whom she starts to date. But before long a mysterious man phones her and announces his visit – he identifies himself as Max Dugan, her long-lost dad who deserted the family years earlier and now wants to make amends, particularly since he only has a few months left to live. 

Nora is, of course, initially apprehensive. But there’s something else: Dugan brings with him a cache of $50,000  - money he took back, through some
potentially nefarious means, from a casino that had swindled it from him in the first place. Now he’s a wanted man – not a good situation considering daughter’s new beau – but that’s not stopping him from showering his family with lavish gifts: everything from a Mercedes to a purebred dog. Nora resists, but ultimately once she gets to know the old man she melts, her only request being that Dugan tell the truth to her son (he does, sort of). Soon dad reads the writing on the wall and bids his adieu, despite Nora’s offer to move away from all their troubles, together. Costello must let this one go, realizing the effect Max Dugan has had on his long lost family.

Third time Simon mines the theme of older child attempting to rekindle relationship with estranged parent, only his time it’s reversed: the parent is the one to return. The result is a charming, well-performed “fairy tale” movie with a lightweight façade representing far deeper matters, in typical Simonesque fashion. My only main issue here is how labored the whole thing feels. At about the midway point, after a dynamite setup and establishment of conflict, we get scene after scene of Nora and Dugan chatting away about why he’s there, why he shouldn’t be there, why wasn’t he there earlier – and no, he can’t buy so many gifts/okay, he can give us some gifts/no, he has to return all the gifts. And in between all of this, Simon pens his usual backstory dialogue about resentment, bitterness and ultimate reconciliation.

I think part of the reason is that it’s a thin story, good for maybe about an hour but showing its seams when flattened out to another thirty minutes. By the time Costello is on to Dugan, we’re thankful that some energizing conflict has taken the place of all that grating and grousing. A warm subplot involves Dugan’s hiring of an NBA batting coach to help a demoralized Michael get at least one hit in baseball, but it seems to come too late. The full effect of his invigoration isn’t fully realized; only Nora and Dugan have truly reached their respective  epiphanies, but at the Pyric cost of umpteen opened closets and boatloads of soul baring.

Yet, as I’ve said many times before, average, or even below average (which this is not) Neil Simon is still better than 90% of those alleged comedies out there today. And I have a soft spot in my heart for this one; I saw it on HBO when it premiered, during a time when I saw EVERYTHING the pay-TV channel broadcast. It was sort of a golden era for me, when my appetite for all things film was insatiable, and it provided an outlet for me during a rough time in my childhood. I still have the VHS tape I made of it – on Scotch, using SLP mode to accommodate two others (which I don’t remember). Ah, the god old days.

Stage in Simon’s life? Reflects the oft-visited theme of parent-child estrangement, which Simon must have identified with at some point.

Simon was now enjoying a comeback on Broadway with Brighton Beach Memoirs, but had yet to parlay that into his cinematic career. It wouldn’t happen for three more years, when, appropriately, he adapted that play to film.

Rating: ***

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

I Ought to Be in Pictures (1982)

The topic of an older child going back to stay with a estranged parent must have been an affecting one for Neil Simon: he explored it in both the “Visitors from New York” segment of California Suite and the 1981 film Only When I Laugh. And now, in the following year’s I Ought To Be In Pictures, he gives us Libby Tucker (Dinah Manoff), a wide-eyed and quirky street-smart upstart, hitting Hollywood for a shot at achieving her goal – to be a movie star. While in Tinseltown, she looks up her long lost dad, Herbert Tucker (Walter Matthau), who left her and her mother (and baby brother, Robbie) years ago. But Libby puts all bitterness behind her; she wants to use her dad’s screenwriting cred as a foot in the door.

Easier said than done, especially when pop suspects his daughter is in town only to cash in years of his absence for career advancement. And Libby is frustrated with her dad’s underachievement. She has a point, after all; he blows what little money he makes at the racetrack and can’t commit to a relationship with his single-mom girlfriend (Ann-Margaret), even after her “ultimatum” of threatening to accept the invitation of a weekend away by a male co-worker.

Libby’s endeavors of becoming an actress are not panning out, and more and more she realizes the true familial talent lies within her father. She begins to help solicit his abilities more, even, in the film’s somewhat-surprise conclusion, inserting cards under car windshields at the airport with his contact info on them. She realizes, now that she and her dad’s relationship is patched up, she can go back home, as he no longer fears commitment with Ann-Margaret, either. 
After years of teaming up with producer Ray Stark and mostly director Robert Moore, Neil Simon now seems to be on a roll with lenser Herbert Ross (The Goodbye Girl and The Goodbye Girl), focusing too on L.A. over New York City as his comedic venue of choice. And like its immediate predecessor, Pictures puts its wisecracks into the mouth of a late-teenage girl – interestingly enough, they’re both future stars of NBC sitcom Empty Nest: Krity MacNichol (Laugh) and Dinah Manoff (Pictures). Both roles are key to the success of their respective vehicles: they’re precocious, but if played annoyingly, the picture falls flat. Manoff has a winning way about her – she has all the wit and irony of a character twice her age, but with puppy dog eyes, and bagful of quirky but endearing habits (she talks to her dead grandmom), she makes the role disarmingly appealing. 

Matthau, for once, plays a “normal” character – more of a leading man than we’re used to – and he’s quite effective also. If his role is less conflicted than past works, that’s fine; it’s not that kind of film. He’s simply a man afraid to commit (translated normal), and there’s no need for a bravado emotional breakdown. An anyways, that moment belongs to Manoff, and quite frankly, it’s a bit too contrived – she never really seemed to be that type of character in the first place.

Far better are the film’s more subtle heartstring-tuggings. A scene where Lbby rehearses for The Belle of Amherst, and Herbert lies on the sofa, watching her, exhibiting an honest feeling of pride despite his lurking suspicion that she may not make it in the movie business. Her lines, about an absentee father, strike a chord for them both – the only real way they’d been able to communicate emotionally.

And the other simply involves Matthau on the phone, a call to his ex-wife, and then son (Robbie), which was forced on him by Libby. The first time he’d conversed with the boy, we feel his anguish and regret over not haing done so before, but it’s masked by pleasantry, and the flip comment that the boy might be coming out to UCLA for college and possibly see him. I was reminded of his phone call in The Odd Couple, also to his divorced wife (also named Blanche – coincidence? I think not). In both cases there’s palpable baggage – and the inclination to humor which makes the whole thing bearable.

The film grossed a modest 9 million, roughly its budget, so Simon took a break from adapting his own plays to the screen (there’s really weren’t any more to adapt anyway). He was hitting a fallow period on Broadway as well, trying to recover from his tremendous flop Fools, and doing so only by looking back, with the childhood remembrances of 1983’s Brighton Beach Memoirs. Matthew Broderick, as Simon’s teenage proxy, would be his voice of choice for the next several years, starting with the next movie.

Another plus – Marvin Hamlisch’s wonderful, early-80s score, and the theme song, “One Hello,” co-written with Carole Bayer-Sager.

Stage in Simon’s life: his recurring custodial issues, from marriages and relationships past. 

Rating: ***1/2

Barefoot in the Park (1982)

A touring company of Barefoot in the Park, starring Richard Thomas and Besss Armstrong as Paul and Paul and Corie, was videotaped and televised on HBO in March of 1982. None-too-coincidentally broadcast a week before Simon’s film You Ought to Be In Pictures, it solidified the cable network’s nascent series “HBO Theater,” part of their move to get beyond simply showing theatrical releases, a move that really gained momentum with the following year’s release of The Terry Fox Story, the first made-for-HBO movie. I saw this version of Barefoot later that year, in July, when I successfully entreated my parents to sign up for HBO so long as helped defray the “steep” monthly bill of nine dollars. My memory far too fuzzy to write a decent review, I recently went to the online video tape trader “Professor Video” to procure a copy. God bless the Internet!

I won’t reiterate the plot here; as the 1967 film was pretty faithful, you can simply scroll to that review for a synopsis. The only major difference involves Paul and Corie’s argument toward the end; the play version is far longer, and more intense, at times reminding me of the harrowing face off between George and Martha in – nearly all of – Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf? (Simon was probably wise to trim it for the film.) And obviously in a stage version, you get a far greater immediacy in the performances, as well as a sense of how an audience reacts to Simon’s one-liners. The physical stuff about the Greek food was a favorite, abetted greatly by the added physicality that was not necessarily in the script. 

As for the presentation itself, it’s pretty good, clearly a testament to Simon’s skills in their home format – live theater. At a running time of just over two hours, it moves briskly, enlivened by the dynamic chemistry between its two stars, Thomas and Armstrong. Thomas, of course, was well-known by this time from his career-making role of John-Boy Walton in The Waltons. But here he demonstrates a somewhat greater range – his ability to manage rom-com chemistry shows he can play more than just earnest, earnest and more earnest. And during his hair-raising argument, in which he practically becomes a Mr. Hyde to his heretofore Dr. Jekyll, the audience roars with frightful delight to see an actor not simply transcending the first two acts of the play but also the first twelve years of his career.
But it’s really Armstrong who steals the show here, advancing beyond the homewrecking ingénue she played in the previous year’s The Four Seasons. She has such a disarming charm about her, balancing between the all-important line of free-spiritedness in the first act and acidic petulance in the second – both characteristics masking latent feelings of insecurity about the future of her potentially too-hasty marriage. Her job here is every equal to Jane Fonda’s work from the movie adaptation, and, given how much I cherished that version, that’s quite a compliment.

Only major complaint, and since this is a by-the-book performance of the play, it would be the same critique I have for Mr. Simon himself (perish the thought): the end is far too abrupt. Paul climbs out on the ledge, drunk and self-pitying, prompting his wife to exhort her love for him. Then – Bam! – curtain, and we can only assume she coaxed him down. The movie solved this error with a cuddly denoumont on terra firma. But the stage version, as it now plays, feels like the tape ran out about five minutes too early.

In any case, it’s a top-notch effort. Bravo!

Rating: ***1/2

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Only When I Laugh (1981)

If Neil Simon’s Chapter Two was a thinly-veiled autobiography of the early stages of the playwright’s early romance with Marsha Mason, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine Only When I Laugh as the post-mortem of their relationship. Although based on his play The Gingerbread Lady, written in 1970, before he even met Mason, it was apparently rewritten in parts to approximate then-relevant life events – Simon’s proxy was made to be more sympathetic, while Mason’s character became an actress instead of the cabaret singer played by Maureen Stapleton in the Broadway run. (The storyline about a fractious custody battle is also borrowed from the “Visitors from New York” vignette from California Suite.) But like Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, another all-too close for comfort depiction of a failing marriage, Laugh makes you forget any reality parallels with its masterful mix of comedy and drama: it’s a marvelous work in its own right.  

Beginning with a therapy session, the film presents Georgia Hines, who reveals that she is a recovering alcoholic, recently released from a 12-week clinic and now reunited with her two best friends – a gay, struggling actor named Jimmy (James Coco) and a married but highly insecure woman named Toby (Joan Hackett), who acts somewhat like a sister to her. And then there’s Georgia’s daughter, Polly (Kristy McNichol), who begs mom to take her in for a while as she currently resides with her father – Georgia’s. Mom relents, begrudgingly, and the two pick up where they left off, even with the specter of a former lover, David, waiting in the wings.

David is now a playwright using his and Georgia’s
relationship as source material for his new play, leading her to suspect there’s still a spark between them. But he has found a new spark in the form of a young blonde from California, and Polly is grasping with the usual assortment of teenage stressors, as well as the buried resentment of her mom having failed to fight for her custody after he divorce. Friends Jimmy and Toby aren’t faring much better: he just got fired from a potential breakthrough part of Broadway, and she faces a possible divorce from her husband. Georgia reaches a breaking point – she drinks at Toby’s birthday party, makes a fool of herself in front of everyone, and nearly gets raped at a bar after drunkenly flirting with a perfect stranger.

Time to pick up the pieces: apologies are distributed, with varying degrees of reception. Polly is the one most disappointed – her mom’s wagon-falling is just the most recent in a series of problems that continually seem to divide the two from having the open-relationship that looks so good on the surface. Polly decides it’s best to go back with dad – they’d arranged a lunch meeting which Georgia had already declined attending. Now, with face battered and emotions shattered, it looks unlikely she will change her mind, but at the last minute, she does. Perhaps it’s time for a new beginning, and Polly’s smile suggests her forgiveness is the first step.

At a solid two hour running time, Only When I Laugh certainly has a lot going on, much of it a great deal more dramatic than is characteristic of the Simon’s usual work. But he deftly juggles it all, and the cacophony of highs and lows, laughs and sorrows, all messily approximate that which is life. The setups and punchlines are all still there, and some of it tends to wear one down a bit, but it’s smoothly delivered by literate characters, people who talk like adults, and not spouting clever phrases like it came directly from a scribe’s typewriter. In many ways, this could be Simon’s most accomplished work – and it presaged the future of intellectual comedy made popular by 80s luminaries like James Brooks and Cameron Crowe.  

The film gleaned three Oscar nominations for its acting – Mason, Coco and Hackett. Coco in particular is marvelous in what would turn out to be an archetypal character – the gay best friend of a single heterosexual female – and he’s still the best example. It was sadly Hackett’s last film role, and essentially Mason’s last hurrah: her roles after this were primarily supporting in nature (Simon would use Matthew Broderick starting with Max Dugan Returns as his performer of choice). Its box office was a modest 25 million – good but still not the phenomenon that was The Goodbye Girl. Film comedy was changing now, and after his next movie Simon would go back to Broadway and direct-to-screen writing. 

Which is all somewhat of a shame, as Only When I Laugh deserved far more recognition that it received, and still does. “You’ll laugh till you cry” was the film’s tagline, and, as hackneyed as it is, it’s pretty accurate.

Stage in Simon’s life: his present, decaying marriage to Mason, I’d say, and her possible alcoholism (which was touched upon in Chapter Two.)

Rating: ****

Monday, March 21, 2016

Seems Like Old Times (1980)

Neil Simon rung in the new decade by embracing the new generation of comedy stars – represented by SNL’s Chevy Chase and Laugh-In’s Goldie Hawn. Tacking on Charles Grodin, whom he had used earlier in The Heartbreak Kid, he now had a trio with which to craft a direct-to-screen work called Seems Like Old Times, a comedy set in the modern day but really a complete throwback to the chatty screwball comedies of the 30s. Sure, it has the trademark Simon touches (repeated motifs, colorful characterizations, quick wit) but it certainly feels closer to The Philadelphia Story than the current comedies, like Caddyshack and Meatballs. 

Chase is Nick Gardenia, a writer (Simon’s proxy here) who gets kidnapped by some criminals and forced to rob a bank. The surveillance camera gets perfectly clear picture of him (perhaps too clear to suspend disbelief), and gets sent all over, including the office of the local D.A. (or the hopeful one, at least), Ira Parks (Grodin). The catch: Ira is married to Glenda, Nick’s ex-wife, and all the prosecutor needs now is to have a suspected felon connected to him in any way. Of course Nick finds his way to his old flame, and Ira must contend with his wife’s batty antics while wrestling with his promotion, which of course is in the very hands of the governor he’s invited to dinner – the same occasion a certain Mr. Gardenia has crashed and now serves dinner at – with the hopes of clearing his name my turning himself in. And as Shakespeare himself said, all’s well that ends well: authorities find a way of clearing Nick’s name, and it all comes down to a court case in which Glenda’s two husbands and herself testify in court – she the defense, and Ira the prosecution.

Well, the ending is certainly a dues ex machina, but isn’t that how all those 30s gems concluded as well? The plot doesn’t stand up to such scrutiny – wouldn’t there be a conflict of interest with Glenda representing her ex-husband, and all her employees (running gag), while challenging her current husband in court? But then again, this isn’t Law and Order, it’s harmless fun, and the craziness does come to a head during the big dinner scene as this sort of film is meant to do. Throw in about a dozen dogs and a funny bit on how Glenda has to cook her own Chicken Pepperoni (see – rule of funny phrases – you laughed, didn’t you?) and you’ve got a winning gagfest that only a Scrooge could dismiss. I sure didn’t; I got through the whole thing in one sitting – rare for a guy who has two kids and must get movies in nap-wise. 

Not much more to say here – it works, plain and simple – and perhaps the only thing more golden than hearing glorious classic-era Simon dialogue are ample scenes of Goldie Hawn in a black nightie. She was in her prime, too, and part of my enjoyment of this film is the remembrance of these talented. and attractive, stars in movies that they just don’t make anymore. Mature adults reciting mature lines that could be a bit saucy at times but never childish. Films wre mde up of acts, which were made up of scenes (real scenes) which were made up of lines, pure and simple. How did we get away from that?

"One Chicken Pepperoni, coming up!
Only quibble: terrible score, and no songs – not even the film’s namesake, which is one of my favorite standards (Diane Keaton did the most memorable version in Annie Hall.) Didn’t they realize that the success of The Goodbye Girl was at least in part due to the inclusion of a dynamite title tune? And I forgot: they had to include a gratuitous staple of this era – the car chase – which comes totally out of left field. Oh well; it only lasts a few minutes.
Stage in Simon’s life: none, really, but probably just paying homage to those zany screwballs from the 30s, the way Bogdonavich did with What’s Up Doc? 

Rating: ***

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Chapter Two (1979)

Most people know by now that Simon was a recent widower when he met Marsha Mason, herself a recent divorcee, during auditions for his play The Good Doctor. He wrote the 1977 play Chapter Two, a none-too-loosely based account of this experience, and it had a healthy run on Broadway for a couple of years before its inevitable film adaptation. Mason played – herself, essentially – in the lead role as Jeannie, and  she managed to get her third Oscar nomination for Best Actress out of it, her second from a Simon play (with a third on the way, only two years later). James Caan took the role of George (Simon), with Valarie Harper and Joe Bologna rounding out the cast as George’s brother and Jeannie’s best friend, respectively.

The film picks up nearly immediately after the death of George’s wife; as he returns home from a vacation indented, unsuccessfully, to make him forget the past, his brother, Leo, tries to get him to move on, attempting to set him up with a series of dates to this end. After one horrific date too many, George puts
the kibosh on Leo’s ill-fated efforts at matchmaking, but due to an accidental dialing he manages to clumsily set something up with Jeannie, whom Leo had met via Faye, an old friend (and possible love interest). After a five-minute “trial date” George and Jeannie hit it off smashingly, with a whirlwind romance that turns into an equally whirlwind marriage. Even Leo is concerned by little bro’s speedy and potentially reckless driving – a fear that soon becomes realized when George breaks down during their honeymoon over the loss of his previous wife. Jeannie obsequiously tries to mend his heart, only enraging him further with her failure to challenge his emotions. After she discovers Faye’s affair with married Leo, she turns a corner, and works on repairing her own marriage – with ultimate success. 

Chapter Two is probably the closest yet Simon has come to a gimmick-free, pure and simple adult romance (unless you count the wife’s death a gimmick; I just saw it as backstory). And by and large, it works – maybe inspired by Woody Allen’s more adult turn in 1977’s Annie Hall, Simon here writes from his funny bone and heart, crafting a romantic comedy-drama that really was ahead of its time: later writers James Brooks and Cameron Crowe would further popularize the genre, but this is certainly one of its forbears. Particularly good is the film’s first act, in which George is set up as a deeply wounded man – arriving from the airport to his empty house, reminders of his dearly departed all over the place, with a deep heartache and a host of unanswered question that always seem to accompany the sudden, tragic loss of a loved one. When Mason enters the picture, she’s a gust of fresh air, and we want so desperately for them to be together. 

The midsection of the film shows the two giddily in love, and even though it’s not bad, I was reminded of Syndey Pollack, in an interview once explaining how this is always he hardest part of a love story to write. “The falling in love is easy – there’s action and a rooting interest there. The falling out of isn’t hard either – action and strong emotion. But the middle is the worst, because you gotta have something for them to do besides feeding each other strawberries and running through fields together.” Well, they aren’t exactly running through fields here, but they aren’t doing much either, and even Simon’s top notch dialogue is not as razor sharp as it could be.

And then comes their breakup, and it seems here that Simon is overcompensating. Without sounding too callous, it does seem that Caan’s mourning is a bit contrived; I really just wanted to put my hand through the screen, slap him in the face and say, "Get over it.” Mason seems to agree (minus the slap), but every time she intellectualizes it, he returns volley with more intellectualization, until the whole argument becomes so abstract it’s hard to get a handle on what, exactly, they’re feeling. Then comes Mason’s big third-act monologue, the one no doubt that got her the Oscar nod. She acts he heart out on it, but unfortunately it’s as overacted as it is overwritten. An editor should’ve come in and told both Simon and Mason it’s not a therapy session. Yeah, right – whose name is above the title? 

But all told it’s certainly not bad, and any Neil Simon during his prime is better than just about anything else they’re putting on the screen nowadays. The subplot, involving Faye and Leo’s affair, is a nice diversion from the main story, but that’s about it: it doesn’t really fit in too terribly well. And Valerie Harper (Faye) is, I hate to say it, physically unappealing here – she must’ve been dieting and really working out at the time, but to excess, so she looks both undernourished and overbuffed. I hate to sound like Rex Reed here, but it did distract me. Well, at least Marsha Mason looked hot, which is something if you read my Goodbye Girl review.

Simon closes the 70s with this one, his most fertile decade. An appropriate cap for the man who advanced romantic comedy, on screen and stage, more than any single individual. 

Simon’s in Simon’s life: obvious if you’ve been reading this review. 

Rating: ***1/2

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