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.
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.