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Neil Simon

Review: The Heartbreak Kid

[Originally published in Movietone News 22, April 1973]

It’s possible to see The Heartbreak Kid as a kind of funhouse mirror reflecting the foibles and delusions we all share to some extent. A glance into such a mirror may provoke healthy, rejuvenating laughter or the kind of wearily hip sniggering which passes, in some circles, for wisdom. Elaine May, Neil Simon (screenwriter), and Bruce Jay Friedman (who wrote the original story) have all been guilty in their time of making shallow incisions in the human psyche and calling these forays major surgery. Perhaps this is an occupational hazard for those who work within the purlieus of the sick joke, the genre of black humor, or the kind of New York–spawned drama that is too often slickly, pseudosophisticatedly dependent upon the diminution of human beings to the level of pathetic, momentarily amusing insects. The Heartbreak Kid is frequently pervaded by a certain nastiness, albeit the well-meaning nastiness of a child methodically taking a butterfly apart to see how it works—or a director pushing her characters to such extremes of behavior that they cease essentially to be human and become one-dimensional butts of cruelly extended jokes.

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Review: The Sunshine Boys

[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]

Neil Simon’s way of being funny has an unappealing tinge of urbane and private nastiness to it. It’s not always something you can pin down to the printed script or the types of jokes he puts into his characters’ mouths; rather, it is a quality more subliminally (and subversively) expressed in a cumulative attitude of a writer towards his people and his audience. It is as if Simon wishes to make us feel guilty about laughing at his characters because it is so easy (too easy) to laugh at them: get a guy so enmeshed in an almost cruelly black inability to cope with life (like Charles Grodin in the Simon-scripted The Heartbreak Kid) and “anything he says or does is bound to appear comically inept. Simon, like Wilder, capitalizes on fallibility in a way that seems somehow unhealthy—a kind of self-contained, ruffled-lip statement that misuses comedy as a tool of exclusion. Rather than portraying any kind of strength, he would just as soon evoke cheap sentiment (like expecting us to suddenly straighten up and get serious when Willie Clark, one of the Sunshine Boys, has a near-fatal heart attack) and he is a lot better at making us cringe in embarrassment at tedious predicaments than at allowing us to let loose at a sharp one-liner or a bit of funny business that doesn’t require a five-minute take to brand into our consciousness.

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DVD: ‘Come Blow Your Horn’

The 1960s was filled with films featuring swinging single men (or even, God forbid, cheating married men), most of them between 30 and 50 living in lavish bachelor pads with fully stocked bars and a revolving door of younger women passing through to their bedrooms:Boeing, BoeingA Guide For the Married ManWhat’s New PussycatHow to Save a Marriage and Ruin Your Life, any James Bond movie and oh so many films with Dean Martin (the Matt Helm movies) and Frank Sinatra (Tony Rome and friends). These aren’t films about the sexual revolution, mind you. These men are unapologetic players and the women are either playmates or long-suffering good girls waiting for the man-boys to grow up and commit.

Sure enough, Sinatra is the ring-a-ding bachelor of the 1963 comedy Come Blow Your Horn, a film based on a Neil Simon play where sex comedy collides with the coming of age comedy of 1950s family values. Sinatra anchors the film as Alan Baker, the runaway son and free-wheeling sales executive of his father’s company (the biggest manufacturer of plastic fruit on the East Coast!) and now mentor to his 21-year-old kid brother Buddy, played by Tony Bill in his feature debut. Buddy has just fled his suburban family home on the tree-lined streets of Queens and landed at his brother’s super-cool New York City bachelor apartment, a lavish fantasy of wood paneling, wall-to-wall carpets, a fully-stocked bar, and a living room the size of a small ballroom: a playground that is clearly beyond his means.

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