Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Only When I Laugh (1981)

If Neil Simon’s Chapter Two was a thinly-veiled autobiography of the early stages of the playwright’s early romance with Marsha Mason, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine Only When I Laugh as the post-mortem of their relationship. Although based on his play The Gingerbread Lady, written in 1970, before he even met Mason, it was apparently rewritten in parts to approximate then-relevant life events – Simon’s proxy was made to be more sympathetic, while Mason’s character became an actress instead of the cabaret singer played by Maureen Stapleton in the Broadway run. (The storyline about a fractious custody battle is also borrowed from the “Visitors from New York” vignette from California Suite.) But like Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, another all-too close for comfort depiction of a failing marriage, Laugh makes you forget any reality parallels with its masterful mix of comedy and drama: it’s a marvelous work in its own right.  

Beginning with a therapy session, the film presents Georgia Hines, who reveals that she is a recovering alcoholic, recently released from a 12-week clinic and now reunited with her two best friends – a gay, struggling actor named Jimmy (James Coco) and a married but highly insecure woman named Toby (Joan Hackett), who acts somewhat like a sister to her. And then there’s Georgia’s daughter, Polly (Kristy McNichol), who begs mom to take her in for a while as she currently resides with her father – Georgia’s. Mom relents, begrudgingly, and the two pick up where they left off, even with the specter of a former lover, David, waiting in the wings.

David is now a playwright using his and Georgia’s
relationship as source material for his new play, leading her to suspect there’s still a spark between them. But he has found a new spark in the form of a young blonde from California, and Polly is grasping with the usual assortment of teenage stressors, as well as the buried resentment of her mom having failed to fight for her custody after he divorce. Friends Jimmy and Toby aren’t faring much better: he just got fired from a potential breakthrough part of Broadway, and she faces a possible divorce from her husband. Georgia reaches a breaking point – she drinks at Toby’s birthday party, makes a fool of herself in front of everyone, and nearly gets raped at a bar after drunkenly flirting with a perfect stranger.

Time to pick up the pieces: apologies are distributed, with varying degrees of reception. Polly is the one most disappointed – her mom’s wagon-falling is just the most recent in a series of problems that continually seem to divide the two from having the open-relationship that looks so good on the surface. Polly decides it’s best to go back with dad – they’d arranged a lunch meeting which Georgia had already declined attending. Now, with face battered and emotions shattered, it looks unlikely she will change her mind, but at the last minute, she does. Perhaps it’s time for a new beginning, and Polly’s smile suggests her forgiveness is the first step.

At a solid two hour running time, Only When I Laugh certainly has a lot going on, much of it a great deal more dramatic than is characteristic of the Simon’s usual work. But he deftly juggles it all, and the cacophony of highs and lows, laughs and sorrows, all messily approximate that which is life. The setups and punchlines are all still there, and some of it tends to wear one down a bit, but it’s smoothly delivered by literate characters, people who talk like adults, and not spouting clever phrases like it came directly from a scribe’s typewriter. In many ways, this could be Simon’s most accomplished work – and it presaged the future of intellectual comedy made popular by 80s luminaries like James Brooks and Cameron Crowe.  

The film gleaned three Oscar nominations for its acting – Mason, Coco and Hackett. Coco in particular is marvelous in what would turn out to be an archetypal character – the gay best friend of a single heterosexual female – and he’s still the best example. It was sadly Hackett’s last film role, and essentially Mason’s last hurrah: her roles after this were primarily supporting in nature (Simon would use Matthew Broderick starting with Max Dugan Returns as his performer of choice). Its box office was a modest 25 million – good but still not the phenomenon that was The Goodbye Girl. Film comedy was changing now, and after his next movie Simon would go back to Broadway and direct-to-screen writing. 

Which is all somewhat of a shame, as Only When I Laugh deserved far more recognition that it received, and still does. “You’ll laugh till you cry” was the film’s tagline, and, as hackneyed as it is, it’s pretty accurate.

Stage in Simon’s life: his present, decaying marriage to Mason, I’d say, and her possible alcoholism (which was touched upon in Chapter Two.)

Rating: ****

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