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. 

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...