Thursday, March 10, 2016

Barefoot in the Park (1967)

Here it is folks: where it all began. Neil Simon was an overnight success when his play Barefoot on the Park opened on Broadway in 1963. Paramount, which released his previous adaptation, Come Blow Your Horn, jumped at the chance this time, and it paid off big time when Park was a box office smash. It not only put Simon in the limelight but it also launched the careers of its stars, Robert Redford and Jane Fonda. Ironic, perhaps, that both actors known more for dramas got their start with a rom-com, but of course – this is the rom-com, and, truth be told, there are moments of drama here, particularly at the end. Just like life. A NS trademark. 

At the start of the film, Paul and Corie Bratter have just tied the knot, and their honeymoon is a six-day stay at the Plaza Hotel. So much in love are they that their newspapers remain unread, their door shut the entire time. Reality sets in when they move in to their crackerbox apartment, a dwelling with no furniture, telephone or heat – and it happens to be on the fifth floor (the outside stoop doesn’t count), in a building with no elevator. Everyone entering their humble abode is speechless… because they’re out of breath from climbing those stairs.

Is Paul getting sarcastic?  No, he's getting chapped lips.
Enter Ethel, Corie’s mom, to check up on things. Paul is not up for entertaining, though, as he’s an up-and-coming lawyer who needs to prepare for a case the next day, but Ethel leaves soon. Why, they’ll see her next Tuesday – on a blind date with upstairs weirdo Mr. Velasco, set up by free-sprit Corie, who epitomizes Carpe Diem just as much as Paul embraces the does “Better safe than sorry" mantra. 

The date commences on a promising note – the evening’s festivities will be held at “The Four Winds.” No, not the Chinese place on Broadway, but the Albanian restaurant on Staten Island, to which the ferry (in mid-February) will transport them. Odd food and strong, indeterminate drinks liven things up, or disturb the peace, depending on whom you ask, and at the end of the night Paul and Corie’s opposite outlooks on life come to a head, culminating in her apparently unconditional demand for a divorce. Her husband, it turns out, is a “stuffed shirt,” unwilling to run barefoot in the park – an act that makes absolutely no sense, particularly in 17 degree weather, but is fun. And a fun guy is what Corie wants.

The next morning Ethel is MIA, but Paul still heeds his walking papers, taking along his briefcase and booze. Corie is now a nervous wreck but does find mom, who allays her daughter’s fears and even admits to liking Velasco. And her advice to Corie and her marital woes: go find him, and be willing to giving up a little bit of yourself. Corie and Paul reunite at the park, where the latter is stinking drunk but is barefoot. They go back home but Paul goes out the window on the ledge, getting his wife to admit that her hubby is a rotten, stinking drunk, but she adds… whom I love dearly. She coaxes him down with a chant they sang at the restaurant: “Shama, Shama.”

Beautifully written work is engaging and involving from beginning to end, and it perfectly illustrates Simon's gift for setting up multilayered but dynamic characters and putting them is some adverse ad often bizarre circumstances for the conflict – ending with a profound but never-too-tidy reconciliation. Barefoot, if we’re determining which life-stage it is for its playwright, must represent the early-marriage stage, and observes that complete matrimonial bliss is never complete, nor is it always bliss. Those crucial first months of any marriage (or nowadays, relationship) are a compatibility trial. Once the hormones wear off, it’s all about people – two people – and there’s gonna be problems of some sort, There always are.

The big date scene is the film’s monkey wrench, and it echoes the “one-wild night” comedies that were big in the 80s. Both Ethel and Velasco, the two true supporting characters, are not caricatures – they serve their function of buttressing the leads while having true, distinctive personalities of their own. And the “next day” offers the perfect fallout for all involved – daylight promotes the self-examination that leads to character growth, and character reconciliation.

And of course, Paul and Corie are, respectively, the classic superego/id archetypes Simon would revisit in later works (as men in The Odd Couple, and reversed in The Goodbye Girl). And, inevitably the roles get switched by the third act, to varying degrees depending on the tone of the film. Here, Corie sees sense in security, and understands why Paul’s conservativism might be a good brake for her sometimes untamed hedonism. Fonda, in her early sex-kitten days, is sublime in her role, playing both facets of her personality with depth and credibility. Redford’s role seems less of a stretch but no less accomplished – the legendarily laconic star may have had his chattiest part here.

Any negatives? Only one: the dated musical score, which underscores too many otherwise poignant moments with perky, pokey flourishes, so typical of the time. Could they help it, then? After all, few directors or producers of he era were prophetic enough to know how dated this sounds now, such as Kubrick or Hitchcock. Probably not, so just chalk it up to film history, filter it out and go along for the ride.

Why do I wax so rhapsodic over this, and over Simon’s works in general? I truly believe that this was the beginning of modern comedy writing. It took the stage by storm, transforming light comic fare into contemporary-sounding, meaningful entertainment, much like James Brooks and The Mary Tyler Moore show did for television. In film, there was only one precedent: Billy Wilder, but even his most celebrated comedy works, The Apartment and Some Like It Hot, sound a little creaky to the 21st century ear. Not so with Neil Simon; even his oldest works sound fresh and vibrant enough to be restaged and revived on Broadway and in local theater. It’s a smart, sharp sensibility that’s always in vogue. 

Barefoot gets another look a little later on when I review the Richard Thomas version, a videotaped version the theatrical presentation, which was shown on HBO in 1982. Though Simon did a great job opening it up for screen (he wrote the film adaption), it will be interesting to note the differences between the two formats. 

Rating: ****

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