Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975)

In 1975, the economy was in shambles, crimes was up in the big cities, especially New York, and, despite Ford’s proclamations to the contrary, America’s “long national nightmare” was not yet over. So Neil Simon knew that his charming romantic comedies from the 60s would no longer fit the bill. He needed to reflect the times, and so he penned The Prisoner of Second Avenue for Broadway in 1971, and adapted it for the screen four years later. It’s still funny, yes, but it’s desperate laughter, much in the vein of the behavior of its lead character, Mel Edison. The comedy is edgy, sometimes uncomfortably so, but it’s his, and our, defense mechanism against a world that seems to conspire against Mel and his wife. Mel’s mental breakdown has all the laughs of the angst in any other Simon comedy, but here it runs deeper, because it feels more real.

Both Mel and his wife, Edna, arrive home to their apartment on Second Avenue in New York. Mel tolerates his office job but lately there’s not a whole lot of work going on, except for the guy handing out pink slips. Edna misses their kids, now in college, but is growing increasingly frustrated with the hectic, often maddening day-to-day which is life in the Big Apple. Then one day a not so funny thing happens: Mel loses his job after 22 years with the company. Then, amid a scorcher of a heatwave; countless disruptions of services including water, power and elevator; and a NY crime wave during which their apartment gets ransacked and robbed, Mel proceeds quietly to have a nervous breakdown.

And with the therapy bills and Mel out of work, the couple gives new meaning to the word strapped. Mel’s brother Harry sings the praises of country life, and even offers to help out his kid bro, but their relationship over the years has been more than a bit estranged – Mel resents Harry’s innate ability to work hard and always achieve his goals, while Harry had always wished he were the favorite son. When Edna gets a job as a PA at a stage show, it helps financially but severely wounds Mel’s pride, and he hits rock bottom when he starts deliriously ranting about the conspiracy against the lower classes. But all things shall pass, and so does Mel’s hysteria – when he tackles a mugger and gets his wallet back it seems to give him to renewed sense of empowerment (never mind that the wallet he took wasn’t his), and he even refuses Harry’s generous offer of 25,000 dollars to start his own camp. He’ll get another job – to be sure – but for now there’s vengeance to wreak – against those upstairs neighbors who keep dumping water on him!

Plotwise, you could say that this is just a homebound version of The Out of Towners, but clearly there’s a lot more going on here than in that ode to Murphy’s Law. Although both demonstrate Simon’s love/hate relationship with New York, the tone here is
Take this, New York!
somewhat more serious, if no less manic. It’s Mel and Edna against the forces of nature, but when one of those forces is poverty, the mania has greater profundity, and the empathy we feel for them runs much deeper. I was thinking often of the works of Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill; Simon’s Mel Edison elicits just as much pathos for the common man (even though his background is more middle-class than the others; but, of course, we’re living in a time when everyone professes themselves to be middle class), complete with backstory of regret and pain. And just like in all those modern tragic heroes, Mel has a monologue about his woes to beat the bank. It starts at the end of his paranoiac rant, when he berates his wife for lacking an understanding of his situation, and then evolves into fiery effusion of what’s wrong with his life, and all life, in mid-70s America. It’s one of Jack Lemmon’s finest acting moments.

Again, the stage version of this story ran for two years on Broadway, and must have touched a nerve with its audience for its timeliness – and grittiness. The movie, as helmed by Melvin Frank, gets a lot of mileage from its performances, but in all honesty it could have been better directed. The staginess is remedied by fine, fluid interior camerawork of the apartment, but a lot of the dialogue was too-obviously looped, and Marvin Hamlisch’s score is probably too depressing in a movie that needs all the uplift it can get. And even though I just praised Lemmon’s performance, I might have had him be less intense in the beginning so his transformation could be more apparent when he loses his mind.

Another interesting touch: the voice-over radio announcements between scenes, delivering bad-to-worse news reports, each ending with a punchline. At least one will suffer from political incorrectness for the modern day viewer, and upbeat Gary Owens doing some of them makes for an inconsistent tone (sort of what the film in general suffers from), but it’s still a clever conceit, providing a Greek Chorus of sorts that helps open up the staginess a little.

Quibbles aside, it’s still Lemmon’s show, and he’s just fantastic. He’s clearly one of a small handful of actors that seem to personify Neil Simon himself. The rhythms, the timing, the reactions, the gestures – all perfectly in sync to showcase one of the great comedy personas of our time.

Stage in Simon’s life: 50ish or so, but at this time Simon was anything but economically disadvantaged, so no doubt he had a friend in mind, or fictionalized a character based on the newspaper headlines of the time.

DVD bonus extras: A "making of” featurette (sent with presskits, shown on Pay-TV at the time), and an excerpt from Anne Bancroft’s appearance on Dinah!, promoting the film. I had never seen much of Dinah! – I was too young to actively remember it – but based on this clip she is one of the most low-key, soft-spoken interviewers ever, and it doesn’t help that she discusses very little of substance with her guests (I swear they spent about 10 minutes talking about Anne’s tennis backhand). Still, it’s fun to watch, and alert viewers may notice a connection between Anne’s husband, Mel Brooks, and his future influence on Simon. 

Rating: ****

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