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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