Saturday, March 28, 2009
The Deterioration Of The Spirit Of Man
With Neil Simon presumably retired and hopefully doing well wherever he is in the world right now, it’s not entirely out of line to wonder just how his plays and films are holding up these days. There’s no arguing with THE ODD COUPLE, of course, and THE SUNSHINE BOYS is pretty damn good but it’s hard not to feel that a number of them are held back in their eras, stuck in that sort of New York-Los Angeles 60s-70s vibe, unable to travel to the present day. Even a few that I liked when I was a kid feel a little like they’re dissolving in front of my eyes today whenever I happen to flip past one on cable. These days I have a much greater personal connection with his two autobiographies, “Rewrites” and “The Play Goes On,” which are fantastic and highly recommended to any writer who may despair that they’re never going to get it right. How much it matters how his work is aging and will continue to age may be open to debate—his Wikipedia page tells us that his plays “reflect on the twentieth century Jewish-American experience,” so maybe that’s all they’re supposed to do. Looking at one of those films for the first time now it’s hard not to wonder what I would have thought if I’d seen it back then. I didn’t dislike THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE, released in 1975, but feel kind of muted towards it anyway. I could believe that much of it worked better on stage but there’s an uncertainty to the tone of it as a film that I couldn’t quite wrap my head around. The jokes, even when good, sometimes feel a little out of place and the darker elements of the drama might have worked better with a different director. Was there ever a film of a Neil Simon comedy with more serious aspirations directed by somebody who wasn’t just a traffic cop? I never liked BILOXI BLUES much but at least that had Mike Nichols. Anyone else? In “The Play Goes On” Simon recalls some reticence at translating this particular work to the screen, stating, “The darker my plays became, the more lackluster the results when they were transferred to the big screen.” He doesn’t offer his opinion about the final result of this one, but I think he’s got a point. Most of them were helmed by directors just shooting the thing without bringing anything else and considering who these guys were, that’s all they were hired for. Sure, THE ODD COUPLE was airtight and probably always will be, but a number of the others don’t have that luxury. THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE has a lot going for it and is genuinely potent at times but it feels like it needs true anger behind it, someone in charge who can harness bite and frustration out of great actors—instead, they got Melvin Frank, then in his sixties, who years earlier directed Danny Kaye movies. He wrote WHITE CHRISTMAS and MR. BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE, fer cryin out loud. He may not have been the best choice in the age of Archie Bunker.
In the middle of a massive heat wave in mid-70s New York Mel Edison (Jack Lemmon) finds himself at wit’s end with the madness going on all around him. With the recession upon them, he finds himself worrying about his job but soon enough he doesn’t have to worry anymore with the company he works for laying him off after 22 years. He waits a few days before telling wife Edna (Anne Bancroft), but before he is able to their apartment is robbed in the middle of the day with most of their belongings taken. Finding himself unemployed in middle age and unable to find a new job Mel soon is in the full throes of a genuine nervous breakdown and Edna, who has been able to find herself a job, has absolutely no idea what to do about it.
It might make for an interesting double bill with DEATH WISH—they both feature middle-aged white men lost in the New York of the mid-70s, trying to figure out their lives. Even the daytime break in feels vaguely (well, very vaguely) similar. And since I wondered how that film would have played with Lemmon in the lead role, go ahead and try to picture THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE with Charles Bronson in the lead. Naturally, the Anne Bancroft role would be played by Jill Ireland. I can’t help it, maybe it would be a train wreck but it sounds fascinating. In this form, THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE is at times an extremely uncomfortable viewing experience. The dialogue we expect from Neil Simon is there and at times it contains real juice but it only makes me wish all the more that the whole thing were better. It’s not a bad film, just a frustrating one and it least it has some points of interest. It’s certainly very well-shot and never becomes dull visually even with much of it set in the apartment. To its credit, the scenes set elsewhere in the world never feel simply like trying to open the play up. Particularly surprising, even from the opening scenes is how timely the film is now, set in a recession-era New York—and, presumably, world--where layoffs are hanging over everyone’s head. Considering how imperfect it is, this is one film that could actually stand to be remade, maybe transposing it to the current post-Guliani New York where the characters are driven crazy by what the city has become in this era. Of course, the characters would be made younger since seriocomedies starring people in their forties never get made anymore and the whole thing would probably be dumbed down big time. So let’s just forget the whole thing. There is genuine anger evident when Lemmon tells Bancroft that “you’re too lazy and too ignorant and too uninformed,” but the movie never follows through on these moments in ways that feel genuine. We need to something more of Lemmon’s breakdown other than just an awareness of how much he’s chewing the scenery. Any sort of catharsis never happens and the various ‘funny’ news reports heard throughout that are meant to parallel the breakdown of society just feel overly reaching and by a certain point become annoying. We also get a Marvin Hamlisch score that too often seems designed to tell us how funny everything is. It feels like this stuff should have been dialed down but it definitely would have helped if it had been funnier. It doesn’t make us laugh as much as we’d like and the drama doesn’t go all the way either, so as a result things feels stranded somewhere in between.
Mel Edison’s situation is just as dramatically valid as what the Lemmon characters in SAVE THE TIGER and THE DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES go through but something feels slightly off and it may be the lack of a disciplined hand to guide the actor. Lemmon’s always there, totally committed. It just sometimes feels like somebody isn’t telling him what to do and though everything he’s screaming about it completely valid and well-written it just feels too much. Bancroft’s performance is considerably more successful in this sense, making me wonder if she figured out these problems on her own. She’s so good that it almost comes close to overwhelming the jokes and more then a few times I found myself hoping that she would just go off script so she could really dig into this. For all I know Lemmon and Bancroft got along great—jeez, I’m complaining about watching a film with Jack Lemmon and Anne Bancroft?--but they don’t always mesh together so strongly. As a matter of fact, Lemmon has much better rapport with supporting actor Gene Saks as his brother. Saks, best known as a director of many Neil Simon plays and films, plays his scenes with Lemmon extremely well and the final scene with the two brothers near the end is so strong in its own modest way that it almost accidentally becomes the real emotional climax of the film. I’m willing to offer the possibility that it’s not the fault of Lemmon or Bancroft--sometimes two actors don’t go together as well as we’d like and it’s only exacerbated when there’s not a strong director around to get it to happen. A few other recognizable faces appear, such as Elizabeth Wilson and Florence Stanley, but there are also early appearances by F. Murray Abraham as a cab driver in the opening sequence, M. Emmett Walsh as the building doorman and, most enjoyably, Sylvester Stallone as “Youth in Park” who Lemmon accuses of stealing his wallet.
The Warner DVD looks great, like the film was shot yesterday. Maybe even too good—I’ve not sure there’s a 70s film where New York appears so bland and what someone in the comments section of my piece on DEATH WISH calls “the default coolness of a 70s New York movie” never happens here I suppose if I want that sort of Jack Lemmon-Neil Simon film, I should go watch THE OUT-OF-TOWNERS again. Maybe that’s not how I’m supposed to be looking at this film, but it ultimately seems like a Neil Simon comedy smothering a more desperately serious film with genuinely good intentions that’s trying to get out. I wish I’d liked it better, but these things happen. I wonder how a few of the others, like CALIFORNIA SUITE or the more farcical SEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES, hold up these days. Maybe better, maybe about the same.