Monday, January 25, 2010
Limpers Are Famous For Telling The Truth
The infectious disco-muzak feel of the old Marvin Hamlisch sound set to the sight of crashing waves up near Big Sur signals the opening of SEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES, the Christmas 1980 release from Columbia back in the days when they still had that sunburst logo at the start of each film. The comedy marked the reteaming of Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase after the success of FOUL PLAY from a few years before and this time they had a Neil Simon script to work off of which, instead of the Hitchcock pastiche of their first effort together, sought to be an update of screwball comedies from Hollywood’s Golden Age. I can remember seeing this one, just like FOUL PLAY, at the much-missed Scarsdale Plaza Cinema, a second run house which only charged 99 cents at this point and I even recall that the occasion was on a Saturday afternoon to a fairly empty house. Given the feel that Neil Simon was trying to pay tribute to the type of movie he had seen on the late show many times through the years, as SEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES approaches its thirtieth birthday it becomes very clear in watching it how they really don’t attempt to make them like this anymore, something that makes its title rather fitting. If shown in a Neil Simon retrospective it would probably go over well with the audience and let’s face it, this sort of thing isn’t always easy to pull off. But the rimshot nature of the jokes doesn’t always play quite as well just watching it at home and some of it has dated in a few unfortunate ways. Somehow deep down I’m not sure that it’s really meant to be seen anywhere other than a half-empty movie theater in Westchester on a lazy Saturday afternoon in early 1981. It’s probably comfort food for somebody out there in the world which I have absolutely no problem with. It’s certainly pleasant enough. The Marvin Hamlisch music almost succeeds in transporting me back to that time while I watch it but let’s face facts, those days are long gone.
Writer Nicholas Gardenia (Chevy Chase) is working in seclusion up in Big Sur when interrupted by a pair of bank robbers who kidnap and force him to rob a bank up in Carmel. After pulling off the job and having his picture taken on a bank security camera Nick is shoved out of the car by them, leaving him on the lam so he seeks out ex-wife Glenda (Goldie Hawn), a pro-bono type lawyer who he still has feelings for. Glenda just happens to live in domestic bliss in wealthy Brentwood with current husband Ira Parks (Charles Grodin) who just happens to be the district attorney of Los Angeles and is about to be appointed by the Governor to be the state Attorney General. They also have at least six dogs living with them who make a habit out of continually running into scenes to disrupt things. When word of Glenda’s ex gets out Ira is naturally worried what this could mean for his chances (“we’re living in a very conservative state” he’s reminded about, um, California). Nicholas, meanwhile, having already done time in a Mexican prison and determined to not give himself up (“Ever since I was a kid I’ve had this wild and crazy desire never to go to jail”) attempts to worm his way back into Glenda’s life with Ira having no idea that her ex-husband is directly under his nose, sometimes literally. With the cops after him, Nicholas pleads with Glenda for help yet also makes it clear how much he still loves her. With both men now in her life Glenda is at a loss to know what to do but matters are made worse by the imminent arrival of the Governor to meet with Ira about the Attorney General position but everyone is aware that his main interest is eating Chicken Pepperoni for dinner.
Directed by Jay Sandrich, whose career has primarily been in television, the visual style of SEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES is done in such a simple, get-all-the-coverage fashion that it’s not too much of a reach to speculate that a version of the same premise made in the 30s or 40s by some journeyman of the time wouldn’t have been all that different. The main difference in the two periods of course is Simon’s rat-a-tat dialogue all the way through which combines that screwball feel with the that farcical examination of married couples that we expect from. Enough of the film is set in and around the Parks’s house to the extent that, if necessary, reworking the piece for the stage wouldn’t have been all that difficult. How well Simon’s work dates today is still open to debate but I do wonder if the films based on his plays hold up better than his original screenplays, as if something about their sturdy structure enable them to play better through the years. When watched now, SEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES isn’t bad at all with the film’s main problem feeling like the farcical developments never develop into anything much more than a simmer when they should reach a full boil. Every now and then characters seem to be reacting much more than really seems necessary considering the plot and the climactic dinner feels like it needed a few more elements other than just the butler getting drunk, a few more characters leaving the room exasperated a few more times. Even with the presence of all those yapping dogs, the courtroom showdown near the end has got to be the calmest, most well-reasoned explain-all-the-wacky-mix-ups-to-the-judge finales ever.
One alternative might have been to up the zaniness to a WHAT’S UP DOC-type level but maybe they just wanted to set all this more in the real world to allow the triangle of the leads play out better. This absolutely makes sense to allow the drama to work but it feels like there’s a farcical explosion just waiting in the wings that never quite happens. In fairness, there is some really good dialogue sprinkled throughout—I have a particular fondness for the bit where Chase tells a suspicious cop that he runs a business that involves carving the heads of presidents out of driftwood and one tiny exchange as the characters sit down in the dining room for the big dinner is a nice throwaway: “The house looks lovely, what have you done with it?” “We had it reshingled.” SEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES put a fairly consistent smile on my face and I even got the occasional chuckle out of it—Chase’s pantomiming response to having his finger stepped on always did it for me and there’s finely calculated exasperation from Grodin nonstop—but maybe not much more than that. There is also some humor involving Glenda’s Mexican clients, the family maid Aurora played by Yvonne Wilder as well as one or two moments involving co-star Robert Guillaume (“As Fred”) that maybe doesn’t play so well these days but I guess we can ignore all that.
In his memoir “The Play Goes On” Simon doesn’t say much about the film beyond generally liking it—he indicates that the screenplay was written during a period of heavy activity and barely even remembers putting it down on paper. Even the plotting doesn’t always hold water with it seeming like several of the characters are having the same argument a few times too many—how many times does Nick say he’s leaving then come back? Not to mention his predicament which feels like it could actually be cleared up rather easily—early on we’re told that the two robbers “were smart enough not to get their picture taken” at the bank then of course later on we get a look at the picture that was taken of them. Of course, one could argue that we’re watching this movie for the laughs and romance, not intricate plot developments, which is completely fair. And we’re there to see Chevy fall down a lot as well. That’s what SEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES feels like—a smoothly assembled vehicle made by people who know what they’re doing and it never results in anything more than that, but maybe it doesn’t need to be. While it’s not as hysterically funny as it may have been in 1980, it remains likable and the pacing maintains a sharp comic rhythm—it feels important to mention the involvement of legendary MGM editor Margaret Booth, then in her eighties, credited as Associate Producer and Supervising Editor, giving the film a direct link to what it’s paying tribute to. This sort of comic precision isn’t really attempted anymore, just as the comedies that are made no longer start with that patented Marvin Hamlisch sound. It might be a little cheesy but it’s kind of nice to hear music that seems so excited about the movie it’s underscoring and at least there’s not too much of it done in a cutesy manner to tell us how ‘funny’ everything is since the movie is able to do that on its own. It should also be pointed out that it feels like they never came up with the right ending for it all that would be as satisfying as the buildup. What we do get feels a little like a reshoot so I could believe that was very much an issue at the time. Or maybe this was the ending and I’m just overthinking the issue. After all, how else do you end a romantic comedy starring Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase, anyway?
It's not exactly the career defining performance for anyone here but they all do very nice work and, it could be said, each displays the qualities that we like about them to begin with. Chase fits right in with the Neil Simon syntax and some of the dialogue seems perfectly written for him. Hawn, fresh off the smash hit PRIVATE BENJAMIN at this point, makes her character’s ever-growing hysteria endearing (when was the last time a lead character in a movie was named Glenda?) and Grodin uses his comic expertise to turn what is basically the Ralph Bellamy role into the Charles Grodin role—other actors might have made the character too unlikable but he makes his behavior completely reasonable and still very funny. Robert Guillaume gets some good moments as Grodin’s right hand man, George Grizzard is the unflappable Governor (“Notice how I remain calm?”), T.K. Carter, later in THE THING, is Chester the butler/chauffer and Jerry Houser of SLAP SHOT (and also the man who later married Marcia Brady) is a gas station attendant. As the flustered judge who gets everything explained to him in the end Harold Gould gets a number of genuine laughs and winds up seeming like he would be right at home in a 30s movie more than anyone else here.
The two leads unfortunately never made another movie together, although Goldie Hawn did appear on the first episode of Chevy Chase's legendarily awful 1993 talk show. Avoid it if you can. Putting all that out of mind, I don’t have the same affection for this Hawn/Chase teaming as I do for FOUL PLAY, but one thing the films have in common is the sort of music that I associate with lush, commercial Hollywood films of this period. FOUL PLAY had Charles Fox and Barry Manilow, this one has Marvin Hamlisch. Even as the credits roll on that ending that doesn’t quite satisfy the music comes in full throttle and I’m thrust back to the Scarsdale Plaza once again. I don’t want that music to play for too long but it is a nice place to spend a few minutes and maybe I even enjoy it more than I’m willing to admit here. Just as SEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES isn’t all that great but it is pleasant enough to revisit after a long time away from it. Now that I’ve done that, I don’t think I’ll need to see it again very soon. Although I am still curious about how that Chicken Pepperoni tastes.