For the purposes of this canon blog, I’ve generally stayed away from remakes or restagings of previously produced Neil Simon works. So you won’t find the dreadful remakes of The Out of Towners (1999) or The Heartbreak Kid (2007), or the amiable but unnecessary TV version of The Goodbye Girl (2004). However I did make an exception for the televised play version of Barefoot in the Park that aired on HBO in 1983 – I wanted to include a dramatized version for the purpose of reviewing one of his straight plays, and it was a fine interpretation of one of his seminal works, allowing he viewer to focus more on words than star power, as was the case with the Redford/Fonda version. And I also allowed this film, a Hallmark-produced TV version of The Sunshine Boys from 1995, for a couple of reasons.
First, it’s not just a retread: Simon rewrote his original script to update it and accommodate the new casting of Woody Allen and Peter Falk as Al Lewis and Willie Clark, respectively. In many ways, it’s an improvement – some of the scenes that didn’t work in the original are completely excised here, with equal if not greater attention paid to the more successful bits (e.g. the “words that are funny” routine, “Enter” vs. “Come In”, the sliding lock door, etc.). The duo is now a product of the Gold Age of Television, not vaudeville (works just as well), and Allen has more quips dealing with his efforts to modernize – one funny joke involves a five-year old he has come in twice a week to teach him Nintendo. In a way, Simon is better at being fresher when he can still write for “older” folk, commenting on modern things like Seinfeld and music videos.
And the other reason is simple: to witness the meeting of two great comedy minds. Woody Allen finally gets the chance to read Neil Simon script, and if there were ever two greater literary lions of postmodern humor in film, I don’t know them. Even better, they’re on the same wavelength – the only real difference in their product, particularly during the 70s, is that Allen’s is somewhat more literarily intellectual, and surely more neurotic. But both have perfected the craft of wit-sparring to serve romantic comedies – both are peerless in their intuitive kens of dialogue cadence, and the way top-dollar jokes are woven seamlessly within. Allen has the Gorge Burns role here, the saner one, and the fact that he’s younger allows him a more exasperated performance. It fits his natural neuroticism like a glove, and makes him a good entry point for the viewer.
Peter Falk has the greater stretch, and although he first draws comparison to Walter Matthau, who perfected the role, one soon starts to settle down to enjoy the work in its own right. With a gravely, rasping voice that sounds like Columbo with laryngitis, he accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of making senility funny – listening to the same, irrational things over and over again gets to be so frustrating you have to laugh – just like real life. This again is why Allen is such a great foil; his head-shaking incredulity is just what we’re experiencing.
But of course, as was the case with the original, the real theme here is that great comedy works in strange ways, and when these guys are on, they’re on. That’s precisely why they’ve stayed together so long, despite their complete incompatibility. Simon has kept their extended scene performing together (in this case, a film scene) nearly intact – it’s their love of the game that keeps them going, and willing to work together despite their knowing of its absolutely negative repercussions. When the tone turns serious in the film’s final act – Willie’s heart attack – its their recollections of career highlights which profer the most joy, even though still it is laced with petty banter about who so-and-so is and when did they die and so on and so on.
The other note of seriousness, that regarding Willie’s unspoken attachment to his niece (Sarah Jessica Parker), is just a bit less successful than the original’s. Matthau, primed from his brilliant performance in 1971’s Kotch, expertly managed an irrascable exterior while still containing a vulnerability within, evidenced by his sickbed worry upon hearing that his nephew may leave him (still a heartbreaking scene). Falk tries, but that same scene in the remake just doesn’t have the same emotional power. It doesn’t detract from the film, but it doesn’t elevate it into something more either.
On balance, though, there’s much to appreciate here, as Simon’s deft comic hand once again reminds us why he’s the American master that he is.