Monday, March 14, 2016

Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1972)

At the end of 1972, Paramount released Last of the Red Hot Lovers, with the production team of Gene Saks as director and Neil Simon as screenwriter, the latter adapting his own 1969 play, and the results put Simon’s oeuvre back on track, at least critically. Essentially a three-act, four character comedy, it drew rave reviews for its star, the then-up-and-coming Alan Arkin, who had previously been known mainly for dramas or very dark comedies (although Lovers ain’t exactly effervescent stuff either). But financially, it disappointed, and Simon’s stage-to-screen transfers were put on hold for a few years.

The film opens with a POV shot of Barney Cashman getting out of bed. In a VO narration, he informs us that he’s a married, 45-year-old fish restaurant owner, and through his daily musings we find that he thinks, dreams about and longs for… women. A 
Mistake #1!
mysterious woman and 4-day-a-week patron at his restaurant sends come-hither looks his way, and so he arranges an assignation with her at his mother’s apartment, But feelings of guilt and indecency dog his would-be conquest, so it remains just that, not helped in the least by the none-too-understanding woman, Elaine – whose heavy drinking is only outmatched by her chain-coughing. Okay, round one was just practice; at a park bench he chances upon another girl – Bobbi, a nightclub singer whose flighty, scattered demeanor seems to have no room for fooling around, although he does introduce our protagonist, for better or worse, to the wonders of marijuana use.

Now a fully confident Barney, after propositioned by a cuckolded woman named Jeanette at a party, arranges for the same act of infidelity at the same venue. But Jeanette is a real doozy; clinically depressed, and seeming to have no reason for secrecy about it, she wags all over the place, and almost drives our poor protagonist out of his mind, if not out of his apartment. She requires from him a list of three decent people, causing him the realization that this quest for the perfect mistress is doomed to failure because he can’t find someone as “decent” as his wife. Thus the affair is kaput, and he telephones his better half for an illicit roll in the hay at… his mom’s apartment. Of course they have to be out by five.

One of Simon’s talkier efforts, Last of the Red Hot Lovers is a real rollercoaster ride, made all the more profound for those who’ve had experience with the kind of women depicted in it. Simon was around 45 when he wrote the play, so I’m guessing the type of thoughts wandering through Barney’s mind were incubating in that of his creator’s as well. All well and good – and it sure does provide for some neurotically comic moments.  I was reminded a lot of Blake Edwards especially with his “men who love women too much” works, and Barney’s midlife crisis and all of its emotionally-complex precursors struck me as very Phillip Roth-ian – you know: the anguish, the guilt, the repressed libido, the adolescent frustrations, the gushing confessionals, etc.

"When I was a kid, there were four or five pretty girls. Now they're all pretty."

This is the sort of film that could fall apart so easily with poor casting. The real lynchpin of the film lies in the performance of Alan Arkin as Barney. A Simon regular like Jack Lemmon would be far too nice a guy to be this philanderer; someone more of a cad would be too unlikeable. But Arkin has just enough of both qualities – he’s got an edge but also a sweetness; one can completely understand why he’s going through all this trouble, and can perceive the quiet (and not-so-quiet) desperation in his actions. He delivers a monologue to the Elaine character at roughly the halfway mark, explaining that his biggest fear is coming to the end of his life and calling it “nice.” This sums the core of his life at this point – a man facing his own mortality, and being remembered for a life that “never got in his way.” By the end, Arkin’s epiphany is muted by the more dramatic one felt by Jeanette, but it is nonetheless there, and provides a healthful salve for both character and audience. Arkin didn’t get an Oscar nod for his performance here (he got one for the overrated The Heart is a Lonely Hunter), but he sure as hell deserved one.

Of the three vignettes here, though, my favorite is the first – Barney’s extended scene with the Sally Kellerman character, Elaine, probably because she’s the most ascetically witty, affording the dialogue a sharpness and comedic deftmess that best represents Simon at the top of his game. We get those great comedy motifs about the fingerprints on the drinking glasses and the countdown to 5:00, all the while plummeting into the psyche of both characters in a crazily neurotic way that feels all too real. The energy here is so real, so palpable that, if you’ll allow me another efeence, made me think of David Manmet. Both playwrights delight in lunatic conversations of such circular logic that our head spins. (In Simon’s case, thank God, we’re laughing too.)

So why was this film such a box office bust? I just don’t think audiences were ready to be entertained by an ultimately derisive look at infidelity, as the sexual revolution was still in progress and different topics were then in vogue. Not until 1979 did audiences truly embrace a farce about cheating, Blake Edwards’ 10, a film not just timelier but broader in tone than Lovers. It also featured the same morally-sensible ending, but of course it featured just one “other woman” – Bo Derek, and she was far from mentally unhinged.

But Lovers is still solid Simon. Give it a look-see.

Stage in Simon’s life: Married, but with a terrible case of the seven-year-itch. 

Rating: ***1/2

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...