Monday, April 4, 2016

London Suite (1996)

After the modest success of Jake’s Women, Neil Simon opted not to fix the unbroken by remaining with that film’s production company, Hallmark Entertainment (they also released his Sunshine Boys remake) to release 1996’s London Suite, based on his play from the previous year. But these were lean years for the once red-hot writer; Suite only played for six months at an off-Broadway theater, and its reviews were not exactly stellar either. But as nearly everything else he wrote had already been either adapted to TV or screen, it was a no-brainer to rush his third installment of the Suite cycle to NBC as soon as humanly possible. 

London Suite interweaves four stories featuring characters staying at the same London hotel. (Just as in the other two film adaptations, it takes the four separate playlets from the stage and intercuts them for greater cinematic effect.) The characters are:

·   Debra Dolby, a newlywed newly arrived at her would-be place of conjugal consummation, except she’s missing one thing: the groom. She seems to think they engaged in an in-flight drunken altercation, and so she appeals to the hotel manager for help in her dilemma, particularly when they’re expected to attend their own celebratory dinner party. Ultimately, we discover that her new hubby, Paul, had actually been arrested at the airport, the victim of a drug smuggler’s complex scheme, and so now he must go along with all the ridiculous lies his wife had told everyone in order to save face.

·   Lauren Semple, a young woman trying to set her mother, Lauren (Madeleine Kahn) up with some kind of romantic involvement. Mom gets more than she bargained for when the date turns out to be a quirky but well-mannered, adventurous Scotsman (Richard Mulligan) that she met on the airplane.

·   Sidney and Diana Nichols, the British couple from California Suite – the former, an erudite British gay man once married to the latter, a British film star who still harbors some bitterness over his leaving her for a man, even though she was perfectly aware that their union was largely for convenience. Their paths now cross years later, as he reveals to her of his lover’s terminal illness, and requests financial support in exchange for his refusal of all future alimony payments. She, however, sees this as the callous termination of their friendship, but she changes her tunes once she discerns that it’s not Sidney’s lover who is dying but Sydney himself. In the end, all three arrange to help Sydney with his disease in the States.

·   Mark Ferris, and his wife, Anne. Mark is all psyched up to go see Wimbeldon,. but when he freaks out after losing the tickets, his back gives out, and winds up floorbound for the rest of the story. Only hell or high water can get him to move – or, perhaps, the fact that the hotel accidently let his room to Kevin Costner!
So, you may be asking, what’s the verdict? It truly pains me to say this, but this is pretty lame stuff. I don’t think I really laughed once during this entire “comedy.” Oh sure, maybe a chortle here and there, but, Mr. Simon, you’ve elevated the bar enough that a “chortle” doesn’t make the mustard. The only one here that provides anything close is Julia Louis-Dreyfuss as Debra, scatterbraining her way through a real pickle of a situation, and leaping from one lie to another in order to salvage her already ostensibly ruined honeymoon. But truth be told she’s really just playing Elaine, her equally neurotic character on Seinfeld.

And that leads to the production’s primary fault: it’s just got a flat television quality throughout it all. Jay Sandrich, a fine veteran television director, does no favors for Simon’s material, which, at the very least, needs to be opened up as much as possible. And literally half the cast is lifted from NBC sitcoms of the time, ranging from Kelsey Grammar (Frasier) and Dreyfuss and Michael Richards (Seinfeld) to Richard Mulligan (Empty Nest) and Jonanthan Silverman (The Single Guy). Anyone not aware of the work’s pedigree might just well assume it’s just a series of four sitcoms string together – all we’re really missing here is a laugh track.

But truth be told, it’s hard to imagine this being terribly funny on the stage either. Simon’s ear for comedy has gone awfully tin, at least on the basis of these vignettes.  The one involving the Wimbledon fan stands out as being particularly unfunny. He runs amok looking for tickets, throws his back out, and lies there on the floor for the rest of the segment. That’s the joke?? In desperation, Simon throws in a barrage of physical comedy stunts at the end like he did with the “Visitors from Chicago” segment of California Suite, with an equal number of laughs – in other words, none. Again, Richards is just aping his Kramer character from Seinfeld, with evidently no real direction regarding what character he should be playing. But he shouldn’t feel too bad; he’s not the only one.

Madeleine Kahn fares no better as the mother set up with a date by her daughter. This vignette is so lightweight I literally cannot remember how the date turned out. And the piece involving Sydney and Diana, the Brits so elegantly and movingly portrayed by Maggie Smith and Michael Caine in California Suite, is completely unnecessary, not even working as an AIDS commentary as it did in the stage version since the disease has now inexplicably been changed to lung cancer. To top it off, both actors are American; Kelsey Grammar squeaks by with his naturally refined manner, but Patricia Clarkson sounds completely inauthentic as Diana. In fact, all of the other Brit roles are played by Americans too – is this because Hallmark was scared we wouldn’t recognize any actors from across the pond? I fear this to be the case, and it’s in keeping with the across-the-board homogenization Simon’s already flawed work has suffered in its stage-to-boob tube transition.

The ratings were pretty low for this movie, effectively ending Simon’s made-for-TV works to date. With no other Broadway successes to draw from, he had nothing left except to do a screenplay – this one based on characters from his halcyon days of the 60s. (It will be our final blog entry: stay tuned!)

Stage in Simon’s life: none, really, just a follow-up to a once-popular series. (His output of late seems to be wrapping up or following-up on things.)

Rating: **

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