By the mid 80s, the quiet, cerebral comedy (Annie Hall, The Goodbye Girl, 10) was out, and the broad, satirical comedy was in, thanks to the surprise success of movies like Animal House, Airplane! and Porky’s (all genre creators). Bad news for a scribe like Neil Simon, who got about broad as he could with Seems Like Old Times. But adapt or perish, as they say, and so, in 1984, he attached himself to the film version of The Lonely Guy's Book of Life by Bruce Jay Friedman, who co-wrote Simon’s 1972 hit, The Heartbreak Kid. But Simon’s was not the only writing credit on the picture; curiously, he’s credited with “adaptation,” while Ed Weinberger and Stan Daniels (Taxi. Mary Tyler Moore) got actual screenplay credit. My suspicion is that the latter two rewrote Simon’s screenplay, while still giving him story credit for essentially taking a nonfiction book of human nature and assuming the thankless task of cobbling a story out of it.
The result is a tonal mixed bag. The broad stuff, like the sight gags and Steve Martin’s buffoonish protagonist, which feels left over from his character in The Jerk, feels at odds with the more observational humor (typified by the dialogue between Martin and a fellow lonely guy played by Charles Grodin), which clearly has Simon’s name written all over it. Not sure how production went along on this one, but my guess is that Simon wouldn’t exactly have very fond memories of it. The reviews weren’t so good and the BO was meager: a mere 6 million, not helped by its graveyard release date of January 27th.
Martin is Larry Hubbard, a greeting card writer (a bad one, inexplicably praised by his superior), recently jilted by a non-so-monogamous girlfriend and now a self-proclaimed “Lonely Guy,” part of a NY subculture, the movie wishes to imagine, that must while away all those sad nights of solitude with the company of houseplants, cardboard cutouts of celebrities, dogs, and other lonely guys. Charles Grodin is Warren, who falls into this last category, and he helps his friend navigate the treacherous lonely guy waters to find his true love: in this case, a quirky blonde woman named Iris, who knows all about the LG persona. But a series of inconveniences keeps our two would-be lovebirds apart for the better part of the movie, and during the rest, it’s her fear of commitment. But when she marries a womanizing cad (Steve Lawrence, who does all too good a job with this performance), she realizes there’s no joy without pain, and meets Hubbard again when she stops his suicide with her own on the Manhattan Bride.
The Lonely Guy was pummeled by the critics on its initial release, but it isn’t really that bad, so long as you’re prepared for Martin doing his usual slapstick routine, and not for a more serious-minded adaptation of the book on which it’s based. That’s the problem for Simon, who no doubt penned a witty, socially observant chat-com about the state of a single guy in the big city. But once Weinberger and Daniels were attached, it’s likely their more spoofy approach overshadowed, and excised, Simon’s more subtle moments. I could tell the stuff Simon wrote: the scene between Larry and Warren on the park bench, for example, in which they discuss why the men who have no need for perfect hair, like bums, always seem to possess it. Or Warren’s aversion to naps because he doesn’t want to wake up with the despair of his unchanged identity more than once a day. But the scenes that everyone remembers are the bigger ones – the spotlight in the restaurant, all the other Lonely Guys jumping off the bridge, Larry in bed with the two blondes and Dr. Joyce Brothers. Call it a tale of two comic stylings, and never the twain shall meet.
No, they don’t jibe, but if you’re patient, they both work on their own merits. And it did bring back more memories of my HBO movie-watching youth (see the Max Dugan Returns review), when I’d see films umpteen times until I memorized every line of dialogue, at least from the good ones. I also recall this year being a big one for Judith Ivey – she had a promising film career ahead of her – but after starring in several fops her star faded (The Woman in Red, anyone?), and she focused pretty much on Broadway. A pity; she had a daffy yet wise way about her, sort of a slightly more grounded Teri Garr.
Simon’s marginal involvement saved him on this one; not to be the case with the next.
Stage in Simon’s life: surely the Lonely Guy days of his urban bachelorhood.