An infrequently updated dumping ground for one culture junkie's thoughts on film and whatever else

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Lost in the '70s, #5 and #6: The Sunshine Boys (1975) and The Goodbye Girl (1977) [Neil Simon double feature]

Oy, why did I do this to myself? Neil Simon is annoying. I'd recorded both these movies off TCM during their February "31 Days of Oscar" thing—George Burns won for Sunshine Boys, Richard Dreyfuss for Goodbye Girl—so I must have had my reasons for wanting to watch them. Neither one is awful, and I even kinda liked The Sunshine Boys, but if you're talking about the Hollywood revolution of the '70s Neil Simon is one name that will never cross your lips. I think the perfect counterexample of why I'm not a Neil Simon fan is Elaine May's brilliant 1972 comedy The Heartbreak Kid. Now, Neil Simon is credited with the script for that film, but by all accounts May favored improvisation and ran roughshod over Simon's words to suit her own looser, funnier, far more interesting purposes. But most Neil Simon movies are like sealed ziplock bags; directors (in the case of these two pictures, Herbert Ross) treated his scripts with the utmost reverence, leaving no room for life outside of Simon's contrived, stagey banter. You might get a few chuckles out of his quippy dialogue, but good luck giving a shit about his characters 15 seconds after the movie ends—and, if you're like me, you're going to do more eye-rolling than laughing anyway.

Having said all that, The Sunshine Boys is actually pretty cute, and certainly the more enjoyable of the two films. It's Walter Matthau and George Burns as an old vaudeville comedy duo, now doddering old men who hate each other's guts, reuniting for one last show. The strange thing here is that Matthau wasn't doddering yet in 1975 and Burns was. Matthau was 55 playing 20 years older, sort of ironic given his late-career success playing grumpy old men when it was actually age-appropriate, while Burns was already 80—dude was born in the 19th century—and about to be launched into what must have been unprecedented stardom as a nonagenarian. Burns' Oscar was bestowed for purely sentimental reasons, I guess, because his accomplishment here doesn't really extend beyond remembering his lines while being an adorable little old venerated showbiz legend. But Matthau's transformation is remarkable. You truly believe that he is the contemporary of this man 25 years his senior. Certainly no thanks are in order to the amateur-grade makeup; this is all Matthau. Unfortunately it's kind of a two-faced performance, because he has a tendency to go waaaay over the top that I guess Ross didn't feel like reining in. Unusual for Matthau, and pretty annoying, but I still got a kick out of him.

Of course, you also have to deal with what feels like endless screen time for Richard Benjamin playing the world's most boring straight man, Matthau's nephew and agent. And when Simon tries to inject some sentimentality into this uncle-nephew relationship late in the movie...uggghh. No thanks. I also thought it was a mistake to show so much of the sketch rehearsal, because this supposedly classic vaudeville scene was in fact incredibly lame. I was reminded of Aaron Sorkin's pathetic attempts at writing sketch comedy for Studio 60. There is lots of fun stuff here though, like when Matthau tries to explain to his nephew which words are funny and which aren't. "Words with a k in it are funny. Alka-Seltzer is funny. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. All with a k. Ls are not funny. Ms are not funny." I wonder if this was the inspiration for Krusty the Clown talking about the word "mukluk." (See also this article.) Simon's quippy style is well-suited to a story of old vaudevillians, and their bickering is amusing most of the time.

I was less amused by The Goodbye Girl. These characters are just so irritating. I don't mean they're unsympathetic or alienating as written, I mean they're unintentionally grating. Marsha Mason with her whining, Dreyfuss with his dumb quirks. I love Dreyfuss, but his Oscar this year should have been for Close Encounters. Alert: this movie also contains a precocious child character. I did enjoy seeing that weird Andre the Giant-lookin', gigantism-afflicted character actor Paul Benedict pop up as a theater director, especially since one of his best-known-to-me roles is the would-be titular character in Waiting for Guffman. But man, the trajectory of the romance is evident from the moment Dreyfuss shows up at Mason's door, and I did not relish the details of its playing out. Boo.

This was sort of a bracing experiment, in a way, moving from a genuinely radical comedy like Hi, Mom! to something so calm and conventional as a Neil Simon double feature. Everything has its place...but I think my allegiances are obvious, then as now.


  1. I've really been enjoying this feature. Paul Benedict is great in Spinal Tap, too. I think he's the hotel clerk who says (am I paraphrasing?) "I'm just as God made me." Good old Paul Benedict. He was the wacky neighbor on the Jeffersons as well. Poor old Paul Benedict. I believe he passed away. It's important to recall that this (Neil Simon) kind of stuff was part of the 70s, too. Even old Bob Hope had his last starring role in the 70s. When you think about THE GODFATHER and CANCEL MY RESERVATION coming out the same year, that's when your mind gets blown.

  2. Jack--I didn't even know you read my blog, so thanks for stopping by! Yes, Paul Benedict was certainly a unique presence...I also remember him from an episode of Seinfeld. Apparently he also had a recurring role on Sesame Street, though I have no memory of that. And he seems to have had small roles in a number of notable early '70s movies as well. I wonder what Christopher Guest's connection to him was...

    And yes, that's very true about the other side of the '70s. The transition of edgier sensibilities taking over the mainstream is all the more interesting when you consider that the stuff they were displacing was still stubbornly hanging around. It's like what Dave Kehr talked about in his review of the Jerry Lewis show, with Jerry getting the Bonnie and Clyde parody all wrong.

  3. About Hester Street, you don't see "O" as a word in too many tag lines.