Thursday, March 31, 2016

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: ****

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