[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.
Simon can write passably funny “dialogue”: Willie (Walter Matthau), reading through his copy of Variety, tells his ex-partner Al Lewis (George Bums) that another old performer kicked off; Al asks where and Willie says, “In Variety.” OK, so you may not bust out laughing, but as a matter of fact some of the film’s more valuable tidbits are not exactly funny funny (and I can smile at “In Variety” without much problem)—things like Willie’s explanation to nephew/agent Ben (Richard Benjamin) that words with a ‘k’ are funny, or the sense of cool and enduring professionalism that Burns is able to convey in a television spot (just like George Burns!) in which he and Willie reenact their old comedy routine for the umpteen-thousandth time. By comparison, there’s something inauspiciously unfunny about Matthau’s first bit as an auditionee for a potato chip commercial, which goes on altogether too long, then leaves us with a disappointed but still hopeful “And…?” riding the tips of our tongues.
That our anticipations are never quite satisfied seems germinally but not totally Simon’s fault. Simon sneakily avoids overt cynicism by skirting the absurd, and that spells trouble for Herbert Ross, assuming that Ross had something or other of his own to say as a director. In particular, Simon’s script is simply too caustic to embrace the kind of feel for the good old days that Ross may have wanted to express. The film begins with clips from old-time vaudeville routines mounted in a squinched, 1930s-ratioed screen format, but from then on the humor in The Sunshine Boys has little to do with the kinetic sort of comedy that Lewis and Clark are to have embodied back then. This, in a dreadfully logical way, may be the idea; the doddering pace of the humor has significance on an uninterestingly abstract level: vaudeville is dead, we can only peer back at it from our decrepit, 16 2/3 rpm perspective. It is not really Ross’ fault that there is little he can do with the camera during the long repartees between Burns and Matthau, but that may be begging the question; Ross, faced with the choice of making his technical direction either superfluous or just plain dull, usually opts for the latter. The reasoning is clear. Burns and Matthau can (should be able to?) bring it off by themselves, just as Woody Allen pretty much brought it off by himself (with help from the shadow of Bogart) in Play It Again, Sam, a more successful comedy venture in which Ross was involved. But they don’t, really. Matthau’s half-senile but irrepressible and aggravating Willie Clark is funny enough to watch as he slides through his cluttered apartment, obliviously clunking aside television sets and unplugging wires on his way to make some tea or answer the alarm clock, but such stuff is good for laughs (maybe) once. And fer chrissakes, one more joke with a stuck door latch and I’m leaving!
THE SUNSHINE BOYS
Direction: Herbert Ross. Screenplay: Neil Simon, after his play. Cinematography: David M. Walsh. Production: Ray Stark.
The players: Walter Matthau, George Burns, Richard Benjamin, Carol Arthur, Lee Meredith.
Copyright © 1976 Rick Hermann