Tag Archives: Neil Simon

Only When I Laugh (1981)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Actress is an alcoholic.

Georgia Hines (Marsha Mason) has just been released from a 12-week alcohol rehab program and returns to her Manhattan apartment looking to readjust to civilian life with the help of her two friends; Jimmy (James Coco) a gay unemployed actor and Toby (Joan Hackett) a woman unhappy at turning middle-aged. To Georgia’s surprise Polly (Kristy McNichol) her 17 year-old-daughter shows up wanting to move in with her and ‘patch things up’ from their tumultuous past. Georgia isn’t sure she’s emotionally ready, but forges ahead and things start out okay, but then the demons from the past rear their ugly head forcing mother and daughter to face some harsh realities both about themselves and each other.

The film is based on Neil Simon’s Broadway play ‘The Gingerbread Lady’ that starred Maureen Stapleton and ran for 193 performances. It was not considered a success and when adapted to a film Simon made changes to the story, but to me it all seemed like every other Neil Simon dramedy that he’s done before. Both this film and The Goodbye Girl that also starred Mason featured male characters that were struggling to become professional actors. Both this film and Chapter Two, which again starred Mason, had characters who were playwrights going through writer’s block. His films always take place in New York and have characters who see analysts, and can apparently make enough to afford them. I realize there’s the old adage ‘write what you know’ and that’s exactly what Simon is doing, but it would be nice if he’d get a little bit out of his comfort zone as nothing that gets shown here seems fresh or original.

The first hour is way too serene and I would’ve expected much more of a frosty relationship between mother and daughter, but instead for the most part they get along great, at least initially. There are some passing references to previous drama, but I felt this should’ve been shown and not just talked about. The second half improves significantly with some strong scenes, but I’m afraid that with such a lifeless beginning most viewers will have fallen asleep before it even gets there.

McNichol is excellent and every bit Mason’s equal, but this exposes another of Simon’s weaknesses, which is that although he’s good at writing character parts for adults he seems unable to do so for anyone younger. In The Goodbye Girl the Quinn Cummings character seemed too infantile for a 10-year-old and here McNichol is more like a 20-something and the intended mother-daughter drama more like just two girlfriends rooming together.

Coco and Hackett are excellent and help hold things together and the movie does manage to deliver, at least in the second-half, but I couldn’t help but feel that Simon had gone to this well too often and was starting to lose his edge. You can also spot young Kevin Bacon as a college dude trying to pick and Mason and McNichol as they eat at a café.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: September 25, 1981

Runtime: 2Hours

Rated R

Director: Glenn Jordan

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available:  DVD-R, Amazon Video, YouTube

Star Spangled Girl (1971)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Norman obsesses over Amy.

This film is based on a Neil Simon play, which despite his tremendous success on Broadway became his only critical and commercial failure and was inspired by a political conversation/debate he overhead at a bar between writer Paddy Chayefsky and a very conservative housewife. The plot here deals with Amy (Sandy Duncan) a very old-fashioned young lady from rural America who moves to the big city of L.A. and meets up with two young men named Andy and Norman (Tony Roberts, Todd Susman) who publish an underground newspaper expounding radical/liberal ideas. Norman immediately falls for Amy and becomes so obsessed with her that he can no longer concentrate on writing for the paper. In order to allow the paper to meet its deadline Andy convinces Amy to come work for them to act as a muse for Norman, but Amy resists as she not only doesn’t agree with the paper’s politics, but she can’t stand Norman either.

The film’s biggest downfall is that it never touches on the political element. Had there been some substance, it might’ve worked, but the political issues are completely glossed over in the broadest way imaginable. The film really isn’t aimed for young adults anyways, but instead romantic diehards in need of an old-fashioned sugary romance where love somehow solves all problems, even when the two sides are at complete opposite ends of the political spectrum, making this thing severely contrived and dated even for its own era.

Roberts, who was already over 30 at the time, was too old for the role as the college kids of the day, who were the true radicals, felt anyone over 30 was the ‘enemy’ and a part of the ‘establishment’. The two men should’ve had long hair, beards, love beads and joints. Outside of one hanging picture showing the peace sign, their home decorations don’t look much different from a family home in Kansas and true radical guys from that era would’ve had posters on their walls of rock groups, naked women, Woodstock and maybe even Timothy Leary.

The Norman character is quite annoying and the way he obsesses over Amy by going through her garbage each day and following her around would get him pegged as a stalker and in serious trouble these days. What’s intended as a humorous take on a ‘love smitten guy’ is done so broadly that it gets dumb quick and eventually comes off like a mentally ill looney in serious need of some meds.

Sandy Duncan, who resembles an elf with a high pitched-voice, isn’t exactly the kind of gal that a guy suddenly goes ga-ga over anyways and it would’ve made more sense had Ali MacGraw or Cybill Shepherd been cast instead as they were more the conventional type of beauty that guys would normally get excited about. Unfortunately they both declined the role after being offered it. Having Norman get so excessively aroused over Amy simply because of the way she ‘smelled’ is pretty pathetic and equates love/romance to mindless urges controlled by animalistic scents similar to that of rodents attracted to the odor of rotted food in a dumpster.

Saying this film would’ve been better suited for an episode of ‘Love American Style’ which was a weekly anthology series that aired during the early ‘70s and focused on cute, comical love stories is not that far off-the-mark since the film was co-written by Arnold Margolin who was that show’s producer. The film even has a similar garishly colorful opening with background vocals sung by Davy Jones.

Overall it’s an embarrassing waste of celluloid with no bearing in reality whatsoever. Elizabeth Allen can be spotted briefly as the landlady wearing an ill-advised blond wig with ponytails that makes her look like the blonde lady seen on the Swiss Miss cocoa products. She never says a single word and is basically just on-hand to force the two men do go with her on all sorts of daring stunts, like parachuting, in order to help pay the rent since they lack the necessary monetary funds otherwise, which like everything else in the movie is just forced humor at its worst.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: December 22, 1971

Runtime: 1 Hour 33 Minutes

Director: Jerry Paris

Rated G

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Chapter Two (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Trying to start over.

George (James Caan) is a famous author who has just lost his first wife. His brother Leo (Joseph Bologna) gives him the phone number to Jennie (Marsha Mason) who has recently gone through a divorce. After an initially awkward first encounter the two form an attachment and quickly decide to get married. Then on their honeymoon the memories of George’s recently deceased wife comes back to haunt him, which jeopardizes his new marriage.

The film, which is based on the hit Broadway play that ran for 857 performances and was written by Neil Simon, is largely inspired by the events of his own life as he lost his first wife, Joan Baim, on July 17, 1973 and then quickly married actress Marsha Mason on October 25th of that same year. Mason is essentially playing herself and her performance here is one of the movie’s stronger points.

An aspect of the film though that I found even more interesting is the fact that it reteams Mason and Caan just 6 years after they had starred in Cinderella Liberty. The romantic angle here though is much more realistic as both people are on a more equal footing as a relationship cannot work if one person is too severely dependent on the other. I also enjoyed seeing how Mason, a highly underrated actress, could effectively play both an emotionally weak person as she did in the 1973 film and a very strong one as she does here. My only quibble is that her character is again portrayed as being an actress just like she was in The Goodbye Girl, but there she was wracked with anxiety and struggling financially as most artists do while here she seemed too financially secure and more like a woman working in the corporate business world.

The film has a nice breezy pace and the romance is allowed to blossom naturally without ever feeling forced, which along with the excellent on-location shooting I really liked. The problem though comes with the fact that the leads are quite bland when compared to their supporting counterparts, which are played by Bologna and Valerie Harper. Bologna seems to steal any film he is in and he really should be given more starring vehicles. Harper is equally strong and nothing like her more famous Rhoda Morgenstern persona. Their characters have engaging flaws and the banter between them is far more comical. The film shifts uneasily between scenes featuring Caan/Mason to those with Bologna/Harper until it seems like two completely different movies going in opposite directions.

Having Caan’s character go from being really crazy about Mason to suddenly and quite literally overnight becoming aloof towards her is too severe and comes off like he is afflicted with a Jekyll and Hyde disorder. Likewise Mason is too forgiving with it when most people would simply get a quickie divorce since they had known each other for only 10 days. Yet even with all of these weaknesses I still found it a soothing and easy-to-take movie that should please romance aficionados everywhere.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: December 14, 1979

Runtime: 2Hours 4Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Robert Moore

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD (Sony Choice Collection)

California Suite (1978)

california suite

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Visitors at a hotel.

Based on the hit Neil Simon play, who also wrote the screenplay, the film follows five couples all staying at the same posh Beverly Hills hotel. Hannah and Bill (Jane Fonda, Alan Alda) are a divorced couple fighting over the custody of their teenage daughter (Dana Plato). Diana (Maggie Smith) is a famous British actress set to attend the Academy Awards ceremony and being escorted by Sidney (Michael Caine) a man she wants all for herself, but can’t because he is bisexual. Marvin (Walter Matthau) is in town to attend his nephew’s Bar Mitzvah and shocked to find that his brother (Herb Edelman) has sent a prostitute (Denise Galik) to his room to entertain him for the night only for her to promptly pass out drunk the next morning just as his wife (Elaine May) is about to arrive. The final segment deals with two bickering Dr’s (Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor) who can’t get along and seem to get themselves into one over-the-top calamity after another.

Many viewers have commented that they disliked the Fonda character as she came off as too cold and bitchy, but I’ve known many people who are like her who put up a very steely front in order to protect themselves emotionally, so for me her sarcasm worked and the way she delivered her acerbic lines is fun especially as she chews up the already transparent Alda character until it seems like he isn’t even there.

Smith and Caine’s segment seemed a bit trite and generic. The first part of it deals with her nervousness about attending the awards ceremony, which isn’t all that original. The second half examines her frustrations at the fact that Sidney can’t solely commit to her, but I couldn’t completely buy into this because she was playing a rich and famous, globe-trotting actress whom I’m sure could easily find another man if she wanted and didn’t have to cling to someone who didn’t fully want her like she were some lonely, small town housewife with no options.

The third segment dealing with Matthau and the unconscious prostitute is quite funny and had me laughing-out-loud while the scenes involving Cosby and Pryor’s constant arguing is incredibly dumb and even jarring as it features a lot of silly, slapstick humor that does not fit in with the more sophisticated tone of the rest of the film.

I was also not so crazy about the film’s pacing. The first hour deals almost exclusively with the dramatic segments while the second half focuses mainly on the comical ones, which came off as imbalanced. It would’ve worked better had the stories been evenly spread out in a rotating type fashion with a few minutes spent on each one before cutting to the next one. It would also have been cool had it taken a Slacker-like approach where the characters, who never once cross paths in this movie, would have instead passed by each other at certain points and the scene would then shift to the new characters that the other ones just passed.

I was also disappointed that we never get to see much of exterior of the hotel. We do see a bird’s eye view of it during the closing credits, but I thought shots of it should’ve been shown during the beginning. I have nothing against David Hockney’s artwork that does get used, but the hotel is a part of the film’s title and therefore should have taken precedence.

Overall though I felt it was a decent dramedy worth the price of admission. It also features a terrific and distinctive jazz score by Claude Bolling that I wish had been used even more throughout.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: December 15, 1978

Runtime: 1Hour 42Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Herbert Ross

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube

The Goodbye Girl (1977)

the goodbye girl 2

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Goodbye doesn’t mean forever.

Paula (Marsha Mason) is a ‘dumped on’ single parent, whose live-in boyfriend has just left her, and now must contend with Elliot (Richard Dreyfuss) a rather obnoxious man who is subletting the apartment. Despite long odds the two end up ‘falling in love’ in this rather obvious, mechanical love story that is finely tuned to the female, especially those from that era. (The macho guy viewer will have run out of the room long before David Gates even has a chance to sing his soft rock title tune).

This was made when writer Neil Simon was still considered in vogue, although his patented one-liners are sparse and when they do come they are more cute than funny. This in some ways seems a retooling of his earlier ‘lovers in a New York apartment’ film Barefoot in the Park. Only here it’s a little rougher around the edges so it can appeal to a ‘hip’ audience. No clean-cut, cutesy newlyweds instead these people are more jaded to modern sensibilities and will routinely live with their partner even when they are not quite yet divorced.

If you can get past a rather strong late 70’s feel (gotta love that Fonzi poster hanging in the bedroom) then the characters remain solid and believable. No beautiful models living lavish and exciting lifestyles. These are average people just trying to make ends meet and find a little happiness along the way. It also doesn’t just show them when they are together, but also when they are out and alone in the ‘real world’, which allows us a rounded and sympathetic view of them.

Dreyfuss basically plays his usual opinionated, abrasive self. Whether the viewer sees the intended charm underneath is completely up to their own personal tolerance. His performance is good, but not exactly screaming for an Academy Award, which he won anyway, but then poked fun of it when he later hosted ‘Saturday Night Live’ on May 13, 1978.

Mason, who at the time was married to Simon, is the one who should have won it. Her performance is both believable and fluid. You truly see a lot of everyday people in her characterization and she clearly carries the film.

Quinn Cummings, as Paula’s daughter, is cute without being too precocious. Her sensibilities help compensate for the sometimes emotional immaturity of her adult counterparts. Though it really looks and seems dumb to have a ten year old still smearing food on the edges of her mouth and wearing a big napkin around her neck while eating.

Although I don’t always have a great eye for continuity errors this one has a doozy. When Dreyfuss comes home one night drunk he knocks over a table with a lot of stuff on it. He sticks his head out the window to shout something into the night air and then two seconds later comes back to where the table is standing and everything on it is neatly set.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: November 30, 1977

Runtime: 1Hour 51Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Herbert Ross

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video