Friday, March 11, 2016

The Out-of-Towners (1970)

Simon began his most prolific decade with his second screenplay written directly for the screen, and just for sheer belly laughs it ranks pretty high. It was always a favorite in my family; it was one of the first videocassettes we ever owned, back when they generally ran you between 20 and 50 dollars, so that meant you had to watch it multiple times to make it worth your wallet. And that we did – I could pretty much recite some of the lines verbatim (like “Explain? What I'm doing in the bushes with a little boy? With my hands in his pockets? They'd give me 10-20 years,” or George’s repeated request “I want your name and address” or Gwen’s frequent exclamation, “Oh my God, George!”) Suffice to say, I loved this one – and seeing it again brought back some sweet, and bittersweet, memories.

The plot is a relatively simple one: Murphy’s Law in New York. George Kellerman and his wife, Gwen, take a plane trip to the Big Apple because he has a major job interview at 9 AM, so leave the night before, hoping to catch dinner at the Four Seasons restaurant and spent a nice, relaxing evening at their hotel room at the Waldorf-Astoria. Ha!

In order of occurrence, this is most of what happens to them:

·   They can’t land at the airport so they are “stacked”; when it is available, fog sets in and they get diverted to Boston.

·   They miss their train back so they walk to another station and take one that is jam-packed.

·   There’s a transit strike so they have to walk to the hotel in the rain.

·   Their room is not available because they are too late (if they had only “called ahead”)

·   They get robbed.

·   They sleep overnight in the park.

·   George tries to steal a little boy’s money, but is caught and nearly arrested when he searches the kid’s pockets.

·   Cops give them a lift but the thieves steal the police car they are in.

·   A Cuban delegate gives them a ride too but involves them in a wild protest mob.

·   George cracks a tooth on a Cracker Jack and temporarily loses his hearing when he stands next to an underground steam explosion. 
And there’s probably a few more that I forgot, but you get the idea. Simon really puts his characters through the ringer here, and once again he is uncompromising. Another writer may have gone with a few problems and/or inconveniences, but Simon piles on one catastrophe after another, to the point where you’re laughing because you simple can’t believe all the s**t that’s happening to this poor couple!
Ohh my God, George!
But of course, there’s he wonderful dialogue to make it all great fun, something noticeably missing from the 1999 Steve Martin remake. The verbal byplay is perfectly timed, and carries along some potentially tense situations (although I did tire pretty quickly of the “Big brown bag and small black bag” routine). And Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis have wonderful chemistry that improves as their situation grows more and more troublesome. Dennis, in particular, is instantly likeable – important given her character could so easily be an annoying whiner. Lemmon is more familiarly doing a slightly less-anal version of Felix Unger, which is just fine given he does it so well.

The “monkey wrench” or unexpected situation or character? That’s the whole film, really, and there’s not really a serious side here given the tone of the story. But Gwen’s speech at the end, in which she knows (SPOILER) Lemmon refused the job on the basis that he could never move his family to a city which had given him so much hell, is a touching echoing of the “Home is where the heart is” sentiment. Of course, we all knew this was coming, but somehow it was also not entirely predictable. Given Simon’s affinity to NY, maybe we thought he’d redeem his hometown. Then again, perhaps he’s exorcising his frustrations it, in a catharsis only writers can get away with.

And speaking of the city, the film serves as an interesting time capsule in the way it depicts the pre-Gulliani “dark days” of NYC, when a mugging was a common occurrence (Anne Meara, in a great cameo, bemoans the crime in the police station scene) and the film’s sanitation strike is used to underscore the city’s filth level. But perhaps the one thing that dates the film the most, and will undoubtedly elicit an unintentional reaction for the modern viewer, is the final scene, when the very last crisis to befall our hapless couple is their return-flight’s hijacking by Cuban terrorists. Now, back in 1969 there was a rash of airline highjackings by Cubans diverting flights to Havana. Criminal acts to be sure, but not deadly. But in the post 9-11 world, how can one see a scene of armed men taking over a plane and not get a chill down the spine?

Simon keeps up his winning streak, and gives us a laugh-a-minute treasure. 

Rating: ****

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