Sunday, April 24, 2016

Charlie’s Angels 1:4 “Angels in Chains”

Airdate: 10/20/76

A woman hires Charlie to locate her sister, Elizabeth, who disappeared from the Pike County prison where she had been incarcerated and presumably been granted parole. The Angels go undercover at the Big House by inviting arrest (easy to do in the corrupt Pike County), and begin to snoop around to discover any clues regarding the missing woman. As they discover that Elizabeth was ultimately shot and killed after an attempted escape (following her assault by a loathsome guard), they also reveal a secret brothel within which many of the comelier inmates were impressed for service, including a woman, Linda, who gets a job as Charlie’s secretary once the corrupt goings-on at the prison are revealed. 

Fabulous send-up of the Girls-Behind-Bars exploitation subgenre, abetted nicely with plenty of campy Angels cheesecake and equally campy supporting characters, from the portly redneck sheriff to the sketchy, smarmy guard. Every staple of the genre is covered too – the stripping down scene (the hands-down highlight), the cafeteria riot, the field labor, the lights-out at night, and, of course, the escape through the bayou in chains (isn’t this just outside of L.A.?). If you’ve seen Chained Heat or Cell Block Sisters, you’re already on the right wavelength, and the casting  of cult star Mary Woronov as the ornery and ambiguously Sapphic warden Maxine clearly indicates that the producers are in on the joke.  
The brothel subplot is part of this genre too, but I was expecting it to be linked to he main storyline of the missing girl; I thought for sure she’d be the key to he Angels’ discovery of this prostitution ring. But no matter – to complain about incongruity on this episode is like rebuking Big Bad Mama for lack of character development. Ya gets what ya pays for; enjoy and eat your popcorn.

In addition to Woronov, there are plenty of other guest stars here, some who would go on to even brighter lights. Kim Basinger is Linda, one of the
inmate/hookers, and even this early she’s playing the swollen-eyed girl in trouble, desperately pleading for succor to escape her dreadful condition. Prolific actress Christina Hart is another prisoner; classic TV fans would know her best as Roper’s niece on an early episode of Three’s Company. And Lauren Tewes is Christine, the client; the following year she would land her most famous role as Vicki, the cruise director on The Love Boat, another Aaron Spelling production. (The two shows would cross over in 1979 on a special ep of Angels.) 

The trivia section of imdb reveals that exterior shots of “the house” (bordello) are of the homestead on The Waltons. Random usage of stock footage or inside joke? You decide. 

Overall, great fun! Hoping the show lets its hair down like this again.

Client: Christine Hunter

Plot Difficulty Level (scale of 10): 3 (piece of cake)

Rating: ***1/2

Stretching the boundaries of 10PM permisiveness

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Charlie’s Angels 1:3 “Night of the Strangler”

Airdate: 10/13/76 

Kelly is a dead ringer for Dana Cameron, a murdered woman whose parents have enlisted Charlie’s services to find out whodunit. The suspects:

  • Kevin St. Clair, the head of a modeling agency who was having an affair with Dana.
  • Michelle, Kevin’s wife, who clearly has a motive.
  • Jesse Woodman, a businessman whose bank St. Clair’s agency appears to be heavily indebted to.
  • Alec Witt, a shady photographer.

The girls go undercover to do the usual searching, but things get more complicated when Michele turns up dead, leaving only a mysterious clown doll by her side (I hate it when that happens). Now all eyes are on Kevin… then Jesse… then Alec, but no clues seem to help, not even after a sad sack Dutchman, befriended by Jill, turns up dead in an apparent suicide, with a confession note (and, you guessed it – a clown). But after some careful fiduciary inspection, Charlie notes that a heavy life insurance policy had been taken out on Michelle, and cashed in shortly after her death. Aha! It was all three of the male suspects in on the dirty business, and off to jail they go, hoho.

I want that outfit.
A true murder mystery, although given that it involves three strangulations, one committed by a former amateur pornographer, it gets seemlier, and grislier, as it progresses. The story gets really uncomfortable when Kelly, after the aforementioned killer tries to rape her, jokes lightheartedly about the presumably traumatic experience with Jill – clearly such matters were not treated with the gravity we accord them today. But back then, it was all fair game for television escapism.
This one wasn’t too hard to follow, but I do have one real problem with the killers’ motives. Okay, St. Clair murders his wife for the life insurance money, but the other two killings are just meant to make it look like it wasn’t an isolated incident? And the offing of the Dutch guy – meant to throw the investigation off with a fake confession? I don’t know about all this; it does seem pretty hard to swallow. And anyways, why did they need the life insurance contrivance anyway? Couldn’t we just have a mystery surrounding Dana’s death and the possible suspects? (St. Clair, his wife, and selected employees at the agency…) Yet another Angels instance of too many plot threads spoiling the plot. Less is more, guys.

Beware of strangers bearing clowns.
Longtime TV/movie character actor Richard Mulligan is a howl as St. Clair, sporting some of tackiest 70s duds this side of Ralph Furley. And don’t miss the poolside catfight between Michelle and Kelly, which ends, you guessed it, with one of them going into the pool. And speaking of Kelly, Jaclyn Smith definitely holds the record, so far, of being the most scantily clad Angel, whether in a skimpy nightie, midriff-baring T-shirt or basic white bikini. Y’know… just for the record.

Plot difficulty index: 5. (Thank God; still reeling from last week’s head-spinner.)

Rating: **1/2


Charlie’s Angels 1:2 “The Mexican Connection”

Airdate: 9/29/76

The Angels get the skinny on a plane crash – an airline possibly hijacked by drug smugglers. Charlie’s client is the pilot, who thinks it was all part of a heroin smuggling ring. His buddy, Jim, becomes a liaison (and smoochie) for Sabrina, while the owner of the plane company, Frank Barton, might be the smuggling culprit as he is a rival of Mexican drug kingpin Escobar. Charlie notes that Baron’s daughter, Maria, loves swimming, so he sends Jill to get friendly on this count for more info there.  And bikini-clad Kelly goes undercover as a teacher to get the dirt on Barone at poolside champagne, which, as we all know, is the best way to get information from anyone.

Sabrina’s initial meeting with Jim confirms that Frank is in on the smuggling, but that due to a weird contract, the pilots/stewardesses (Dan, Laurie) are powerless to press charges or investigate.  But
Sabrina’s sixth sense alerts her that something’s “not right” about Jim – perhaps confirmed by his odd nonchalance to Bartone’s ire over Escobar’s admittance to the crash that started the whole thing. Jill goes even deeper; her friendship with Maria turns up distrust and resentment. Bartone later reveals further complicity: he refuses to shut down a heroin lab to make up for loss. (Sabrina and Jim Taylor go to the lab, which apparently is covered as a wine producer, and shuts them down.) 
Now, apparently, Escobar is upping the ante on the smuggling/crashing thing – the Angels think the crash was meant to feign incapacity on Bartone’s part, and to move in on them with Barone’s own druglords. (I think.) Jill gets caught in the wine cellar; she reveals herself to be Escobar’s agent, and sets up a meeting for both druglords to meet at a marina in L.A. Escobar turns out to be Bosley, and a shootout ensures that Bartone gets his just desserts. But who really is Escobar? Turns out to be Jim, the pilot, but don’t worry – the Angels git him with their handbags. Phew! 
Dude, some 70s pornstar wants his mustache back
Good Lord, you’re gonna have to take some fast friggin; notes during the Angels’ debriefing scene on this one. Take the most complicated Bond dossier and toss in a John LeCarre plot, and you have a general idea of what I had to go through to figure this one out. (My summary above is what I think happens, but I’m definitely not 100% sure.)  I actually had to see this one twice, to catch all the rapid-fire plot info, and I’m not entirely convinced all of it fit together, either. It makes me wonder – did 1976 audiences get it all, with no rewind capabilities, at 10:00 on a late summer midweek night? Doubtful – probably just eye candy in most households.

But having said that, it’s better than the other extreme: stupid simple-minded fare, the likes of which are in no short supply on today’s TV/cable
/Internet landscape. And also, is it any great sin to put the viewer to work?  As crazily complex as this storyline is, it certainly didn’t bore me, owing to the usual assortment of teeth-gnashing villains and piquant supporting characters of dubious motive. And speaking of, ya gotta love that twist ending (I didn’t cal it), which plays up the “Whom can you trust?” theme in the great, grand Agatha Christie tradition. Too aggrandizing a comparison? C’mon, isn’t that what we’re looking at here: old time murder mysteries, replacing British mansions and teacups with L.A. streets and sun tan lotion?

Let’s start a new feature, a plot comprehension difficulty rating, only because I’m curious how the other episodes compare to this one in that regard. I’m calling this one a…
PCDR: 10 (easily)

I hope they get easier. Don’t have time for multiple viewings.

Rating: **

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Charlie’s Angels 1:2 “Hellride”

Airdate: 9/22/76

A female race car driver dies in a track explosion; her mechanic hires the Angels to contest the official cause of engine malfunction. Digging for clues, they discover some nefarious goings-on the form of a greedy promoter and his assistant, along with another female driver, appropriately named “Bloody Mary” – the one who instigated the fatal crash. When their role in the murder becomes clear, Sabrina gets behind the wheel herself to participate in a trans-Mexican border race, where she follows Mary to discover that all the heaves are in on a diamond-smuggling ring. The mysterious crash? A woman originally in on the plot but later having second thoughts – and thus numbered days.

Ever wonder what a mash-up between a race car drama and a jewel heist would look like? Well, wonder no more, and now Western Civilization can continue on. Yes, it’s every but as preposterous as it sound, but somehow, with a healthy dose of the Angels’ trademark kitsch, it carries the day. Sure, they could’ve just explained away the exploding car as some kind of vendetta or enmity from a rival racer, or the machinations of a money-grubber looking to drum up stadium business, but kooky, byzantine plotworks are (so far) what the series is all about (although this storyline is definitely easier to follow than that of the pilot).

Sabrina gets to play the adventure-girl role this week as a race car driver, while Bosley is a real hoot as a revival minister helping Jill, as his daughter, warm up to the men in a effort to get info. Best performance by a guest actor this week goes to prolific TV character actress Jenny O’Hara, as Bloody Mary; she plays the toughie with all the glowering, snarling camp the show will allow (a lot), and reminded me of a cross between Rizzo from the movie Grease and Pink Tuscadero from Happy Days. As this episode predated both those works, perhaps they were inspired by Miss O’Hara’s performance.

First episode with standard opening, using clips from the pilot and first few episodes of the series, including this one. We also learn the official name of Charlie’s business: “Charles Townsend Detective Agency,” as revealed by a exterior shot of the building where the agents get their directives.

Rating: ***

Charlie’s Angels 1:1 “Charlie’s Angels” (Pilot)

Airdate: 3/21/76

Our story begins with “Charlie” (voiced by John Forsythe), a nebulously-affiliated investigative crime-stopper, explaining in the now famous setup of how he “rescued” three female police academy grads from menial duties so they could work for him. Kelly (Jaclyn Smith), Jill (Farrah Fawcett-Majors) and Sabrina (Kate Jackson) receive their dossier from the unseen Charlie via speakerphone. Bosley (David Doyle) and Woodville (David Ogden Stiers) are on hand to iron out the nuts and bolts, and to supply ancillary assistance when needed.

And now, Charlie has a new case for the girls: a wine country magnate has mysteriously disappeared, and his wife and new beau, Beau (Bo Hopkins, continuing his typecasting as the go-to villain for 70s shlock), are set to inherit the place. But the rightful heir, the family’s black sheep daughter, has also gone missing, and has only days to step in before the will-reading to claim her rightful prize. The Angels try to subvert the coup, first by having Kelly successfully impersonate the daughter, then by arranging her disclosure so she can get in cahoots with the baddies and arrange some dastardly doings when the real daughter comes into town, who happens to be…

"The entire fourth floor!"
Sabrina, dolled up to elegant perfection and ready to claim her fortune, but in a sudden turn she announces her true intentions: to forgo the lavish inheritance and require that a bird sanctuary be built on the nearby swamp. Suspicious Beau skulks around the bog to get answers, and when he sees Bosley “birdwatching,” he forces out the imposter’s true reason for surveyance: oil. So Beau and co., dollars in eyes, buy out the property of a hillbilly’s daughter (Jill) for a quarter of a million dollars, but he needs to excavate one important resource first – the body of the murdered winemaker. The Angels are all ready for him; after a tussle in the bog, and some assistance from a local boy named Aram (Tommy Lee Jones), the sheriff swoops in and arrests our nefarious complicitors in pretty short order. Back at home, Charlie reveals his client: the long, lost daughter of the estate, who should now have no problem reclaiming her beloved vineyards.

The grand 90-minute pilot for one of the highest-rated series of the late 70s is actually a fairly routine procedural drama, an extremely common genre of the era. The formula is intact here – our heroes get a case, and, in a myriad of assorted, exotic settings, quirky side-characters and glowering viliiains, get the job done in the end. Like Baretta, Barnaby Jones, Starsky & Hutch, and the rest, there weren’t too many shadings of character here, nor was there much suspense regarding the outcome. Indeed, there may have been the fear that Angels would just file right in with the other cop shows, and be cast aside in a genre already pretty shopworn by the date of its premiere.

But it was a smash hit.

The show topped the Nielsen’s, and ABC was so shocked they thought it was a mistake, rerunning it the following week to make sure it wasn’t a fluke. Again, a ratings hit, ad so it didn’t take long for programmers to pick up the show in September. After SWAT, it became the second feather in producer Aaron Spelling’s 70s cap; it certainly would not be the last.

Perhaps the only one not surprised was Spelling himself – the man clearly had his finger on the pulse of America’s TV-viewing habits, and, in many ways, Angels was a no-brainer. Take your garden-variety crime drama, but take out the dude and replace him with… three gorgeous women, sort of like Police Woman times 3. And putting it in a socio-cultural perspective, it was certainly a matter of right time/right place; the enuui of Vietnam and Watergate hung over the country like a pall, and the Sprit of ’76 was both a celebration of a birthright and as well as a spritual reinvigoration. The same mantra which welcolmed a grass-roots, peanut farmer into the White House also celebrated a letting-your-hair-down aesthetic on TV. The harrowing images on the 6:00 news were over, for now; by 1976 we had Farrah, and no one minded it one bit.

But Spelling knew the jiggle factor could only go so far – there has to be a halfway decent story too, and there is. The Charlie’s Angels pilot spins a reasonably credible yarn, and its plot is crafty enough. As a matter of fact, it may even have more plot than is typical of its ilk – my head was spinning at about the ¾ mark, especially when the other Angels get in on the plot to bring the wine empire down. But I’d rather have it that way than too little story, and anyway it’s all giddy fun, not unlike a breezy Bond film, where you’re all too willing to be momentarily confused as long as you get the goods.

And the appeal of the characters certainly carries them a long way, too. You like the Angels, they’re not sharply ironic or cynical, nor do they wear their “girl-power” on their sleeve (take that, movie versions). They’re just crime-stopping agents cashing in a check like the next Starsky, Hutch or Magnum. And if they can provide some sex appeal, albeit modest by today’s standards, so much the better. I can already see some of you rolling your eyes at that praise, ready to pounce on my male chauvinism, but for the record, renowned feminist and social critic Camille Paglia called the show, “effervescent action-adventure showing smart, bold women working side by side in fruitful collaboration." (I guess it comes down to the age-old query: can female sex appeal be empowering or it necessarily objectifying?)

Such was not the critical consensus when Angels debuted. In addition to drawing ire from feminists like Gloria Steinem, the show, along with other critically reviled shows like Three’s Company, launched a national review of the general quality of TV programming, concluding with the recommendation that things better shape up real soon (they didn’t). But time has been kind to both Angels and Three’s Company; both shows have become beloved fixtures of “our television heritage,” and even come up looking downright stellar (and quite chaste) compared to the post-cable landscape of horny housewives, publicity-starved reality-TV celebrities and macabre crime-scene dramas (with a zillion spin-offs and variants).

I love the 70s!  They didn't care about sweat stains back then.

But back to the pilot, where it all began. Clearly some kinks need ironing: the Woodville character, although played well by the underrated David Ogden Stiers, is completely superfluous, and would be jettisoned by the series premiere. It’s also odd to note that there’s a somewhat uneven ratio of Angel screen time, will Jaclyn Smith easy dominating the first half of the show (ironic, as Kate Jackson entered the project as the biggest star, and this meant to be a “star vehicle” for her). And perhaps they’ll loosen the eins just a bit with the plot – the best moments here are those involving good ol’ boy Tommy Lee Jones as Aram, who gets to interact with two of the Angels and even gets to have a little chemistry with Sabrina. And I’d also like to see the Angels’ operation be a little less perfect – everything seems to work to a T, and they’re never really imperiled until the final face-off in the swamp. Might add some more suspense if their hair got mussed up every now and again, and I mean that literally and figuratively.

But no doubt they’ll have the bugs worked out. Our next entry: the first episode of the series proper, complete with real opening credits. Can’t wait! 

Rating: ***1/2 

P.S.: Almost forget – one of the show’s great assets: the theme song! Nicely used but not overused, it’s as representative of the franchise as the stars themselves. Hum a few bars to yourself while you wait for the next post.

On to the next case...

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

“My name is Charlie.”

Amazing how immortalized those words have become in the pop cultural vernacular, isn’t it?

It started off as a modest, schlocky entry into the coveted mid-seventies ratings sweepstakes and wound up, despite none-too-glowing reviews and plenty of feminist backlash, as a beloved fixture of our television heritage.

You gotta give credit to producer Aaron Spelling for accurately reading the zeitgeist. While Norman Lear was making CBS the number-one network in the early seventies with his socially-relevant, indomitable sitcom machine, Spelling saw another America: one weary from the turmoil of Vietnam and Watergate, thirsting for something on TV of the more escapist variety, And yes, something with… sex. As cinema was relaxing its belt after years of strict Hays-code standards of morality and decency, television, in the interest of competition, followed suit, or at least as much as the FCC would allow. Nothing could disturb the almighty family hour from 8 to 9, but after that, the adults could play a little bit, and play they did. Jiggle TV was born. And Charlie’s Angels, more than any other show, for better or worse, paved the way.

TV writers Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, known primarily for the shows Ironside and Mannix, conceived the premise of three sexy detectives in 1975. Shortly thereafter they brought the idea to producer Aaron Spelling, until then known for The Mod Squad, The Rookies, and S.W.A.T., who was looking for a fresh take on a genre fast becoming shopworn. He instantly knew he wanted his Rookies star Kate Jackson as Kelly Garrett; Kate much preferred the more intellectual role of Sabrina Duncan, and so it was in that role she was cast. Farrah Fawcett-Majors won her part of Jill Monroe by impressing Spelling with her performance in the sci-fi sleeper Logan’s Run, and Jaclyn Smith rounded out the trio as Kelly, after having auditioned and beating out hundreds of other applicants.

The show assumed its title after Kate Jackson rejected Goff and Roberts’s initial concept of three
1976 Publicity Still
chain-wearing woman called The Alley Cats (thank God!). She instead suggested their moniker be changed to “Angels,” and more specifically, Harry’s Angels, as they’d be working for a man who gives them their assignments. But to avoid confusion with another current network series, Harry O, they changed it yet again, to the title we all now and love: Charlie’s Angels. Work began on the pilot in early 1976, but it was soon decided that Charlie would be best unseen – he would explain, through a speakerphone, the Angels’ mission at the beginning of the show and then not be heard from again. But the producers knew greater male presence was needed, so they introduced a man named Bosley (David Doyle), who would help the women in their adventures. Also in the pilot, although not in the series itself, was Scott Woodville, Charlie’s proxy presence and main back-up to the Angels, played by David Ogden Stiers (answering the age-old question: What do Charlie’s Angels and M*A*S*H have in common?).

And so, on March 21st, 1976, ABC aired the 90-minute pilot, simply titled “Charlie’s Angels” at 9:30PM. Ratings were good enough that he show was picked up the following season, and the rest is history. (Or, should we say, HERstory?) The show remained in the top 10 Nielsen ratings for its first two seasons before slipping down even further until its eventual cancellation after season 5. But it remained strong in reruns, and even developed a cult following through the years. Of course, Hollywood couldn’t resist, and so out came the star-studded movie version in 2000, followed by a sequel. The less said about those the better.

But back in the 70s, Wednesday night was Angel night, and if you wanted to turn to some mindless escapism, with some T&A thrown in for good measure, one needn’t go any further than the likes of Kelly, Sabrina and Jill. So let’s do this – all 110 episodes - in as honest and affectionate an analysis as you’ve come to expect from the Rocket.

Here we go – gentlemen, start your disco balls!  

Monday, April 4, 2016

Neil Simon: The Last Word

So that’s it! The entire Neil Simon canon, in one convenient bog, just for you.

I’ve sure learned a lot – hopefully you have too. I must say I was more than a bit surprised by some of his more serious works – stories that managed to tug at the ol’ heartstrings while simultaneously tickling the ribs.

I’m not gonna bore you with an long-winded wrap-up (although I said that about the intro, didn’t I?). I’ll just leave you with a top-10 list of what I consider to be the best Neil Simon movies. Here they are, in ascending order. 

10: Jake’s Women  Surprisingly poignant one-man odyssey of the women in one man's life, abetted strongly by Alan Alda doing what he does best: sharing his neuroses.

9. Last of the Red Hot Lovers  This one really stayed with me, particularly the format of one man’s three ill-fated attempts, with different women, to have an affair. A zany salute to the whack-job females we’ve all dated at one time or another, and the reasons we can’t get them out of our heads.  

8. The Out-of-Towners  Everything can go wrong, goes wrong – very, very wrong – for Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis in NY. Simon just loves turning the thumbscrews, and her here cranks them beyond human endurance; just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does. Only a man who loves the city so much could make it look so hellish.

7. The Odd Couple  The quintessential mismatched buddy comedy. Simon was in the middle of his 60s roll when he penned this play and movie adaption, and it works so well because of methodical character depth and evolution (most writers get one or the other but not both). Oh, and those incredible one-liners, one after another.

6. California Suite  Middle and best Suite movie, a perfect juggling of four funny character-driven stories at the same Golden State hotel. Alda and Fonda are touching in their reunion, which starts out cordial but quickly unearths enough skeletons to turn things bitterly fractious; and Matthau turns on the slapstick charm in his futile efforts to convince wife Elaine May that the unconscious blonde in his room is not the result of a one-night stand. But Maggie Smith and Michael Caine positively steal the show in their segment about a film star and her hubby, a closeted gay man, who keep up appearances but can’t deal with the unrequited love of their union.

5. Only When I Laugh  A real sleeper, in a filmography full of sleepers. Marsha Mason stars as an alcoholic actress, who takes in teenage daughter Kristy MacNichol, in the best of Simon’s stretch of estranged parent/child movies from the early 80s. With smart sharp dialogue, it’s a definite precursor to the female-centered seriocomedies that came out later in the decade (Terms of Endearment, Baby Boom, Working Girl), and the first film (to my knowledge) to feature a “gay best friend” character, another rom-com staple.

4. The “Eugene” Trilogy: Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound  Okay, I’m cheating a bit here, but it really is hard to pick one considering they’re all part of the same broad saga. Plus, they’re all pretty good, especially Biloxi, when Simon’s youthful alter-ego toils in the trenches (literally and metaphorically) to understand the working of the human psyche. Brighton explores family fracas amidst the brewing of a world war and a country still getting back on its feet economically, and Broadway is sort of a wintry, melancholy reverie, a crossroads for the boy and his brother, and a swan song of sorts for the previous generation. All in all, a beloved panorama – I would’ve loved to see a second Eugene trilogy, chronicling the character’s later years – but then, that’s pretty much Simon’s entire canon (why I concluded each review with “Stage in Simon’s life”).

3. Lost in Yorkers  Sort of… the “other” characters of Simon’s youth, the ones who perhaps had a far less idyllic life than he did. Two boys must stay with grandma while dad makes a living, but the matriarch (Irene Worth) is anything but touchy-feely. Her other children include a con artist (Richard Dreyfuss) and a mentally-impaired but joyously life-loving daughter, Bella, brilliantly portrayed by Mercedes Ruehl. Her confrontation with Worth at the end is absolutely the equal of anything Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams ever wrote – full of regret, love, heartbreak and, ultimately, liberation. Ruehl’s Bella, like A Doll’s House’s Nora and The Glass Menagerie’s Laura, is an unlikely feminist, one who reminds us that the first shackles to come off are from the ones you love.

2. Barefoot in the Park  Simon’s first hit, and perhaps the one he’s most known for. The story of a newlywed and their first NYC apartment (on the fifth floor; don’t count the outside stoop) is as charming as it is dateless. It introduced the world to a new brand of comedy writing, one that influenced all who came after, from James Brooks and Cameron Crowe to Nancy Meters and Judd Apatow. This adaptation, starring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, actually improves upon the stage version (with a better, cleaned-up finale), but even just a filmed performance of the play would be enough to rank high on any film fan’s list. A completely perfect comedy, it’s only outdone by my #1 choice:

1. The Goodbye Girl  An absolute joy. This is the film I put on to cure a bad mood, or a rough day at work. Or just when I want to see a solid love story, starring good actors, delivering perfectly crafted dialogue. Remember those days? The Goodbye Girl, of course, has free-sprit Elliot Garfied (Richard Dreyfuss) unintentionally rooming with uptight dancer Paula McFadden, with results that run the bumpy gamut from animosity to open hostility, to – of course – love. Its 110 minutes go by like ten; this is what it looks like when all cylinders are firing. Hell, even the subplot, involving Elliot Garfield’s ill-conceived performance of Richard III as a homosexual, is hilarious. Probably the most protoypical of Simon’s works; every single line bears his mark, and Dreyfuss, next to Alda, might very well be the master mouthpiece for the writer’s work. (A shame he only starred in one other Simon film.)

That’s it. We’re done. Rather than bore you with more of my tedium, I think I’ll leave you with something the man whom this blog most affectionately celebrates wrote.
“I am most alive and most fulfilled sitting alone in a room, hoping that those words forming on paper in the Smith Corona will be the first perfect play ever written in a single draft. I suspect that I shall keep writing in a vain search for the perfect.”

I know what you mean, Neil. I know exactly what you mean.

See you for the next blog. 

The Odd Couple II (1998)

Jack Lemon and Walter Matthau were a hit film duo long after The Odd Couple, and even before (their first pairing occurred in the smash The Fortune Cookie, from 1966). Then in 1993, with both actors pushing 70, they starred together yet again in the charming sleeper Grumpy Old Men, which did well enough to merit a sequel two years later, and another reunion, Out to Sea, in 1997. And so, with Neil Simon desiring at least one more chance to get his name back on the silver screen, a sequel The Odd Couple seemed like a no-brainer. Simon penned the screenplay (likely his last) and it naturally starred Lemmon and Matthau reprising their roles as Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, respectively.

The film starts with Oscar down in Florida, still sloppily hosting his poker parties, only this time with elderly women (some with strict dietary requirements). And when a call comes in from his son he’s elated to learn of the boy’s upcoming marriage. Not so elated, it seems, to learn the idenity of the girls dad: none other than Felix Unger, his age-old nemesis. Both plan on attending the wedding, with Oscar picking Felix up at the airport in southern California, then driving the rest of the way to he venue. Easier said than done. With Oscar’s still slovenly inclinatins and Felix’s unceasing anal-retentiveness (not to mention that annoying-as-hell sinus problem), their road trip is a disaster on wheels. It’s Murphy’s Law time once again as their car rolls down a hill and explodes, they try to hook up with two women on the run from jealous husbands, and they get arrested three times by the same sheriff (for charges ranging from the transport of illegal immigrants to the murder of a elderly gent who offers to give them a ride, then dies suddenly at the wheel). Well, they get to the wedding, with Felix finding a potential love interest and Oscar having to ease his son’s pre-wedding jitters. And when Felix gets back home, he finds Oscar, jilted by his new flame, once again needing a place to crash. Everything old is indeed new again.

Yes it is, especially in Hollywood, where the rule is - never let a franchise go unmilked. A modest hit, I’ve no doubts there could even have been a #3, but both stars’ health was not good at he time: Lemmon was battling bladder cancer at the time, the disease to which he would succumb in 2001, and Matthau passed a year earlier from heart disease. But you sure wouldn’t know it from the way these guys perform; true professionals to the end, they look and act here as good as they did in their heyday. And it sure is good seeing them in these roles again after an astounding 30 years. While the first half hour or so really doesn’t define their beloved roles so much – they could easily be playing the codgers from Grumpy Old Men – they gradually start assuming them again: Felix the neatnik and Oscar the unabashed slob. But we also get the mutual affection that so distinguished the original. As antagonistic as they are to each other, it all but masks a profound friendship, one enriched by our knowledge that these two actors have just as deep a relationship in real life.

And what about Simon’s screenplay? How does this third unofficial member of the Odd Couple fare? I guess the best I can say about his script is that it’s serviceable. The wordsmith hasn’t lost his touch with the puns and the witty banter, but they serve a pretty routine story, one we’ve seen for years and years before this. The idea of a road trip with an id/superego matchup was perfected, in my opinion, with Planes, Trains and Automobiles, so here it just seems a bit stale. Sure it’s amusing that the bumbling twosome repeatedly get arrested, but their charges are as unlikely as they are contrived. And the subplot involving the Mexican immigrants seems so cringingly racist. Sorry, Neil, you might have gotten away with the stereotypes in The Out of Towners and The Prisoner of Second Avenue. But this was 1998, and by then the “joke” of smuggling a dozen or so tamale pickers across the border just wasn’t funny.

Things improve toward the end, when both characters get beyond the hijinks reveal themselves through dialogue – the forte of all talents involved. There are a few heart-tugging moments at the wedding itself: Oscar counseling his nervous sire with a bit of reverse psychology (Simon loves this bit, going all the way back to the final segment of Plaza Suite), and Felix acting like a nervous schoolboy in his attempts to woo “the love of his life.” And the final ten minutes are a delightful paean to the original movie, with a near-perfect replication of the classic poker scene with Felix taking everyone’s lunch order. That combined with the immediately recognizable musical theme, was a skin-tingling moment for me. And I don’t often experience that at the movies nowadays.

This is most likely Simon’s screen swan song, and I think it’s a good one, showing that he’s come full circle in his career. One could see this metaphorically – the two beloved characters he created in his heyday are still going strong, weathering all manner of misfortune, ups, downs, romances, marriages, divorces, births, deaths. But in the end, all that truly matters are the laughs. Without those, can we really call ourselves agents of enjoyment? A human is the only species that can laugh, that can smile. This life’s too goddammed short not to avail ourselves of that one true gift – one bestowed on the old and the young, regardless of creed, race or culture.

Thanks, Neil, for giving that to us. And for telling some pretty fine stories to go with it.

Stage: None, just revisiting a couple of old friends.

Rating:  ***

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