Sunday, April 3, 2016

Lost In Yonkers (1993)

Neil Simon was in a rut on Broadway in 1991; he needed a hit outside his Eugene trilogy – bad. He must’ve known it was do or die time because he crafted the play that would win him the Best Play Tony and the Pulitzer Prize: Lost In Yonkers. Keeping the same timeframe as his autobiographical plays – the early 40s – he instead switched the tone just a bit, showing us a wartime-era family with far more dysfunction than his own, and thusly a heck of a lot more drama. The narrator this time is also a child, Jay, who’s about as close to normal as the story got. Mercedes Ruehl received a Tony for Best Actress and Irene Worth for Featured, and Simon was hot yet again on the Great White Way.

Two years later, Simon’s old producer, Ray Stark, helped bring the play to the screen, enlisting Martha Coolidge to direct. Wisely, Ruehl and Worth were retained for their respective roles, and Richard Dreyfuss stepped in to play Louie, which Kevin Spacey portrayed on Broadway. Did the film set it on fire as did the play version two years earlier? Not quite, as the film’s 10 million dollar gross was roughly equal to its budget. And it didn’t help that it played in mid May, just before the start of the summer movie season, which that year included that modest indie sleeper Jurassic Park. Yonkers did not exactly come across as popcorn-munching fare.

Our story begins as two boys, Jay and Artie, are brought by their father to see his mother – Grandma, as she is enignaticaly known to all family members. Hard as nail and cold as steel, her reputation precedes her enough to scare the devil out of the two lads. But they have a ob to do – feign affection for her enough so she’ll accept their staying with her, while salesman Dad travels the countryside to scare up some extra dough. The fail – until Grandma’s other child, Bella, so excited about te nephews’ visit, threatens to leave if they don’t get their way. They, and we, soon discover that Bella is somewhat cognitively challenged, but her ebullient spirit and fun-loving attitude helps make up for such deficiences.

More secrets are revealed, nearly all having to do with Grandma’s harsh upbringing of her children. Louie, another son, drops in to say awhile; he’s a shady con-artist needing refuge from some gangsters who seem to mean business. And then ther’s Gert, another daughte, who has a speech impediment caused by breathing difficulties: a trait she developed after being traumatized by Grandma. But the elderly matriarch hasn’t had an easy life either; she saw her father killed by police in Germany  as a horse crushed her foot, and she buried two children from Scarlet Fever early in the century.  A hard life requies one to be hard, is her motto. But her children, now adults, are now more than a little resentful of their dysfunction.

Except for Bella, until now. She’s sweet on a male usher at the local theater, a man who seems to be a bit slow too, but has dreams of opening up his own restaurant. Bella tries for days to summon up the gumption to tell her mother she intends to get married, but it ends in chaos, as Louie is also adament against the pairing based on his suspicion that the man only wants the family money. Bella changes her attitude now – Louie ponies up the money for her, but Grandma thinks she stole it from her. Another crisis, this time ending with Bella exhorting her regret that Mom always treated her like an eternal child, fearful that she might go to a home and leave her. The boys depart, Louie departs… and so does Bella, as Grandma still will not change her ways. A liberation for one person, a lifetime of buried emotions for another.

One can quibble with a few flaws here and there, but it’s pretty darn hard not to consider Lost In Yonkers a masterpiece. This may well be Simon’s best screen work since The Goodbye Girl – it’s brim-filled with pathos and heartbreak, featuring characters with tragic backstories, leading lives of quiet desperation. Part Tennessee Williams, part Eugene O’Neill and part Simon himself, this is a story for the ages, revealing to us in alternating shades of humor and sorrow just how wounded those American lives of the traumatic early -20th century could be, and how so many could exist only by repressing, repressing, repressing.

And Simon has certainly created his greatest “heavy” here (honorable mention goes to Sgt, Toomey from Biloxi Blues). His Grandma is a fearsome persona – one so achingly resonant because we all have someone like her in our family. How can she do this? How can she treat her children this way? Irene Worth inhabits this character like no actress I’ve seen I recent memory – and she doesn’t let the viewer off easy. No smiles, no heartwarming shows of humanity, no easy payoffs which would compromise the integrity of her character. Just a few layers peeled off here and there, to show us the cause of her consternation. Oh—there is one thing---a moment, after Bella says a terrible thing to her, in which she sobs, muffled, into a handkerchief. And I was sobbing too.

Equally winning is Mercedes Ruehl as Bella, a sad, puppy-dog of a wallflower, struggling to burst free out of her shell but constrained by the guilt she feels toward her mother. Grandma made peace with her disability: “The doctors said you were a child, always a child,” and she lives with this with the reasoning that the world is full of hate and cruelty, maybe being a child is not the worst thing to be. Clearly their scenes together are the crux o the film, even though Dreyfuss, Sraithern (as the usher) and the boys do exactly what supporting roles are meant to achieve: support. I won’t soon forget the explosive, skeletons-out-of-the-closet scenes between mother and daughter. Again, no easy answers, just pure drama.

So why weren’t these two actresses (or, heaven forbid, the film itself) rewarded at Oscar time or by that many critics, which could help abet the other oversight? I haven’t a clue. Worth and Ruehl both deliver career-worthy performances, and they should not be penalized because they were rewarded for the same roles with Tonys. Could it have been the unfortunate release date? Or was it the lunkheaded marketing campaign, with the roadside sign showing “Lost In Yonkers” – get it? Maybe, but I suspect it was due to the film’s a bit too perky and conventional direction by Martha Coolidge. She is an actor’s director, not necessarily a stylistic or hip one, so that may explain why more critics didn’t warm up to it. But even just a well-photographed version of a Pullitzer-prize winning play still makes a great movie. The art is in the writing and acting, and good Lord shouldn’t that be enough?

This is probably Simon’s last great work on the screen. His next few projects are TV adaption of previous or new stage works. I should mention, by the way, that the same year of this film, 1993, also brought to the public his stage work Laughter in the 3rd Floor, which was televised on PBS. I have been trying, futilely, to find a copy, so you won’t get to read a review of it – for now. If I ever procure a copy I will add it to the end of this blog strand.

Stage in Simon’s life: marginally-autobiographical, probably an exaggeration of family members or friends from his boyhood.

Rating: ****

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