Thursday, April 22, 2010
Some Problems To Work Out
For some time now I’ve been trying to make it a point to see certain films made way back in the seventies, some of which I have a vague memory of them opening but just never caught up with until now. In watching them it’s occurred to me that a surprising number of films from that decade have fallen into some kind of dead zone. It probably has a lot to do with what the so-called Generation X was exposed to in the early years of video rentals and cable way back then but while plenty of films from the eighties are known just as much now as they were ten years ago, except for a few evergreens plenty of mainstream 70s films, even ones that were big hits at the time, seem to be forgotten these days. They don’t show up on cable, they’re not on DVD and any video release they got was eons ago, probably in some giant clamshell casing. It’s as if there was some kind of pop culture cutoff point when Reagan got elected or maybe when MTV came on the air. This might partly be an issue of shelf life--the ones I’m thinking of may not be the blockbuster hits, auteur efforts or cult genre titles but the presumed quality works for adults comedies and dramas that were made for an audience that was definitely there at the time but isn’t anymore. I have a feeling that quite a few of these films starred Glenda Jackson. Or they came from Neil Simon plays. The film based on Simon’s play CHAPTER TWO has a Broadway pedigree, was a major release from Columbia at Christmas 1979 (“…represents Neil Simon at his big-screen best,” so said Variety), star Marsha Mason received on Oscar nomination for Best Actress and it even figured into the plot of a SEINFELD episode years later yet now it’s completely forgotten, never released on disc and it barely seems to ever turn up on TV. And while there are plenty of films out there sadly neglected just looking at CHAPTER TWO explains why it may have been largely forgotten—it’s just not very good. Maybe it was a personal work for Neil Simon, possibly one that worked better on the stage, and it certainly means well with earnest performances by the leads but too much of it just feels like a misfire. Marsha Mason did get an Oscar nomination and when you see it you can guess why but that still doesn’t make it any better than it is.
Novelist George Schneider (James Caan) is mourning the recent death of his beloved wife Barbara and confronting the daunting prospect of going back out into the dating scene. Meanwhile actress Jennie MacLaine (Marsha Mason) is also dealing with going out into the dating scene after her recent divorce. When George’s brother Leo pushes him to get back out there he slips him Jennie’s number and while George is resistant a mistake phone call leads to the two of them meeting anyway. When they do the sparks fly instantly and before anyone realizes it the two have decided to get married. But in spite of all the warnings they get from loved ones neither one expects how much George’s feelings for his late wife are still a part of him.
It’s fairly unremarkable right from the start but much of the first half goes down fairly easy in that Neil Simon sort of way with that non-stop dialogue. And there is something likable about the rapport which develops between Caan and Mason who here are reunited for the first time since CINDERELLA LIBERTY, speaking of films that don’t deserve to be forgotten these days. But all this has to lead somewhere and that’s where things become problematic. The conflict in CHAPTER TWO involving people dealing with regrets of the past and the insecurities of approaching middle age is perfectly valid yet the way the movie handles it never seems part of the real world. Both the film and play were apparently very closely based on what Neil Simon actually went through in his relationship with Mason after the death of his first wife Joan (interestingly, I realized watching this that John Williams lost a wife named Barbara to cancer in the seventies and I wondered if there’s a connection). But as much of it may be based on actual events some level of truth still feels like it’s missing—maybe he was still too close to it at this point in time (I’ve never seen or read the play) or maybe the film needed a stronger director to get the tone right but even that wouldn’t have covered up certain plot issues which caused me to check out fairly early. The two leads rush into getting married, brushing off any objections that say they’re putting off tomorrow’s problems until the day after which frankly seem perfectly reasonable. So when those problems obviously wind up happening it doesn’t seem like it would have affected the plot one iota if they’d waited six months—for that matter, if they had waited until they felt George was ready and then it turned out he wasn’t it might have played even better, more believable, more resonant. As it is now, this condensed time frame just comes off as gimmicky, wacky romantic behavior in a film where that sort of thing isn’t needed. Simon has written in his memoirs about going through the kind of implosion portrayed here by Caan’s character after he and Mason were together but the way it plays in the movie feels like the writer still doesn’t seem able to articulate what any of it meant. It winds up playing like the genuinely likable lead character from the film’s first half has suddenly been possessed by aliens with the actor not getting any help from either script or director. Caan has nothing really to play during this section beyond showing off the back of his head while listening to Marsha Mason during her big, long, massive monologue, clearly the reason she got the nomination and apparently taken directly from what she said to Simon in real life when they were going through this period (she didn’t play the role on stage but by this point apparently thought enough time had passed). It’s frustrating because seeing Caan in a role like this has its rewards—he’s too good an actor to always be considered the tough guy—but when he manages to express his feelings the way it’s written just isn’t enough. Maybe the right way to do it would have been to have the material be much more serious to really dig into the truth of this pain, but this is Neil Simon after all so the banter shows up whether we want it to or not. Much of what happens to these characters feels dramatically valid in theory but the comedy seems forced and as a result too much of the serious stuff does too.
This all may have worked on the stage in 1977 where it could have played for the crowd as a form of group therapy but on film it comes off as too stilted with little sense of actual reality and definitely very little sense of anything cinematic. Obviously there’s no point in hiring a visual stylist to direct a Neil Simon film but even the points where something might have been needed, a certain way to bring oomph to a comic or dramatic moment, director Robert Moore (mostly stage work, but also the Simon films MURDER BY DEATH and THE CHEAP DETECTIVE) mostly lets the moments sit there, seemingly content just to get it on film and it all just comes off totally flat. It probably played fine on the Upper East Side when it opened or at a Sunday matinee for old people up in Westchester County but it doesn’t do much for me today, although it is somewhat interesting seeing a film portraying people of this age (he’s 42, she’s 34) come off as much older than they would now—early on George has a date with a wild looking girl named Bambi which is kind of bungled in how it’s shot but the joke also comes off as a little too fuddy-duddy. The film is too underpopulated with supporting characters, probably because of how it played on stage, and is also possibly hurt by Simon trying to distance himself from the character obviously based on him. George Schneider is a writer of spy novels (and doing very well, from the looks of things) but considering the theater world turns up in the story anyway would there have been anything wrong with him being a playwright just as in real life, with making all this as nakedly emotional as possible? Isn’t that why Simon was writing it in the first place? His reluctance to go there just feels like he’s holding back in every way except for the big speech. Stuff just feels missing, like the lack of children (which I guess in Simon’s world would have been another Quinn Cummings-type) or how the only people the two leads seem to know are his brother and her best friend, given their own subplot which feels more tacked on than it probably should. Don’t they have anyone else in their lives they can talk to or interact with? Since this stuff doesn’t come off as real, the pain never comes off as real and all we get is a syrupy Marvin Hamlisch score with an endless lovey-dovey montage set to that score as the newlyweds take a tropical honeymoon. When everything is sorted out in the end the credits roll to one of those ‘we had it all for just a moment’ songs sung by Marilyn McCoo, set to Hamlisch music and Carole Bayer Sayer lyrics while the credits roll to freeze-frames of all the moments that made us laugh and cry for the past two-plus hours. This story of dealing with massive emotional pain features a moment when Marsha Mason is racing across town to get to the all-too-easy happy ending on time and at one point there’s a brief cameo by a wacky unicyclist blocking her way, for cryin’ out loud. That right there kind of says it all about the tone. Come to think of it, maybe the eighties aren’t so bad after all.
It’s not really an issue of the actors. Marsha Mason is playing a role seemingly designed to win someone in stage or film awards with that massive speech at the end. She’s believably likable, level-headed and vulnerable. She’s more of a human being than it ever seems the material actually allows her to be. James Caan’s performance is hurt mostly because he doesn’t have his own equivalent speech—Neil Simon is making it very clear how much Marsha Mason was right—so as a result his best moments are early on when he just has to be likable and charming, the sort of guy who it would be fun to play baseball with in Central Park during an afternoon in 1979 (hey, he’s playing a writer—somebody should pair this up with MISERY). Joseph Bologna kind of keeps to his one note as George’s smart aleck brother but he’s still fun to have around (it’s probably memories of MY FAVORITE YEAR) and the script does provide him with shadings which help flesh things out. Valerie Harper, always slightly underrated because everyone thinks of her as Rhoda, does some very sharp work as Jennie’s best friend making her big speech feel even more genuine and painful than Mason’s but it was hard for me not to focus on her appearance whenever she turned up—even Janet Maslin’s review in The New York Times pointed out that the actress seemed “horrifyingly thin.” Cheryl Bianchi is credited as “Electric Girl” in the role of Caan’s disastrous date but she doesn’t even get a line, presumably because that would mean that Neil Simon would have to come up for something for her to say and he doesn’t think she warrants that.
There’s very little else to say about the movie since there’s very little point to my having seen it in the first place beyond just saying that I’ve now seen it, filling in one more blank that’s been there since the days when I was just a kid, always looking at movie ads in The New York Times. And I can also say that I’ve seen one more James Caan film, so nothing wrong with that. Movies like this featuring such well-off characters (as well as these specific actors) living on the Upper East Side and dwelling on all the frustrations of their unfulfilled lives weren’t around very much past 1979 and when compared to what may have been the big releases from Columbia only five or six years later it probably seems like even more of a relic. The film ends, as most films do, with the characters forever frozen in time, totally unaware of what the eighties would bring, what the future of New York would bring. And that’s where they will always be, never having any idea that these two hours spent discussing all their foibles would one day be almost totally forgotten. The world of today probably isn’t any poorer for not being more aware of CHAPTER TWO, but after everything we see these people go through I can’t help but think that they’ve earned some relief in the end, to live out their witty banter-filled celluloid lives in a version of New York where it is forever 1979, one where the days are bright, Neil Simon plays are constantly premiering on Broadway, that Columbia sunburst logo plays before movies and there will always be the sounds of Marvin Hamlisch in the air. They deserve that much.