Sunday, March 20, 2016

California Suite (1978)

Neil Simon only took two years to bring the second of his “suite” plays, California Suite, to the screen after a healthy year-long Broadway run (that’s a long time for a play). Featuring an all-star cast, it opened in November to modest praise and box-office, but may be best remembered as an answer to a trivia question: who was the only person to win and Oscar for playing an Oscar loser? It’s Maggie Smith, for her role in this movie, as a British film star in town for the Oscars, nervous as all hell, and not just about the ceremony.

Simon, as well as other playwrights, must enjoy working in a shorter form, as he does here, anthologizing four stories not quite weighty enough for feature length but perfect in this form. And some of these stories, in their snapshots of lives with plenty of history, joyful, tragic and everything in between, reminded me much of the similar bittersweet vignettes penned by the likes of Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor and O. Henry. It’s no stretch to say that two of these stories, “The Visitors from London” and “The Visitors from New York,” surely rank among the finest of Simon’s work. 

The Londoners are Maggie Smith, playing an Academy-Award nominated British actress (a la Glenda Jackson or Vanessa Redgrave) and her husband, played by Michael Caine. Her nerves are shot waiting for the big Oscar ceremony, so she starts hitting the sauce early  - a bit too early for hubby’s taste, and through their conversation we get the sense that he’s more caretaker than better-half; this is explained through a few casual hints regarding his potential homosexuality, and finally realize theirs is a marriage of convenience – and façade. “I’ve never loved any woman more than I loved you,” and she responds, “You know how to hurt a woman!” Simon masterfully withholds key lines of dialogue, tippng us off about the truth of their union only gradually, like a slowly-peeled onion. Their final moment, an act of lovemaking in which she, after losing the Oscar, implores him to keep his eyes open and see her for a change, is perhaps Simon’s most poignant coda – and the story itself is a masterpiece.

Coming in second is “Visitors from New York,” in another fractious pairing, this time as Alan Alda and Jane Fonda as ex-spouses currently at odds over their daughter, who’s just migrated back to dad on the West Coast after a long unhappiness on the East. Fonda’s character is stubborn as steel, secretly envious of Alda’s healthier, and ostensibly happier, lifestyle, and her disposition is made al the worse when it looks like the daughter will stay with dad. So much backstory here, replete with closeted skeletons and deep pangs of regret – all masquerading as humor, attempted and otherwise. And Fonda is positively magnificent here, just as deserving an Oscar nomination as Smith was, I a role that couldn’t be anymore opposite than Corrie Bratter. She’s all poise and dignity, just a front to mask layers of frailties and insecurities. 

Walter Matthau and Elaine may star in the third segment, a broader, alleviating  story to balance the previous drama, about a man in town for his nephew’s bar mitzvah, and the repercussions that ensue when he, and ultimately his wife, discover a naked, unconscious woman in bed with him the next morning. It’s a pretty funny, Blake Edwards-esque comedy of attempted cover up, with Matthau stealing the show as a man terrified of an infidelity he doesn’t eve remember committing. (And for some reason his glasses are a pricelessly hilarious comic prop!) May is fine as well, with a dénouement as nice as it is unexpected (thank god, after the first two bits).    

The fourth story is really sort of the glue holding the other three together, interspersed throughout the film (it’s all cleverly structured, with all four intercut to some degree, and the current story stressed the most and each dropping off when concluded). "The Visitors from Chicago” gives us Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor as doctors, connected as brothers-in-law, who start the trip mildly disagreeing and ending up literally beating the s**t out of each other. Things get worse and worse after a series of mishaps ranging from just annoying to downright life-threatening (car accidents, tennis injuries, glass impailments, etc.) It’s a hoot to see comic geniuses Pryor and Cosby (in their only film together) at each other’s throats, perhaps mirroring their real-life relationship. But the comedy of errors at times gets pretty ugly very fast – at one point they cut trapped under a truck and need the Jaws of Life to get out. Ummm, sorry Neil, but this ain’t exactly a kneeslapper. Still, both comedians get to read better dialogue here than in most of their other films, and that’s enough not to be too tough on it.

By and large, a good time to be had in Simon’s take on the Golden State, with pointed observations about the culture. No, not as sharp as Woody Allen was in his merciless Annie Hall, but Simon’s milder touch still yields some stirring drama here, as well as the expected laugh factor.

Rating: ****

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