Total Recall

Total Recall: The Heartbreak Kid and the Movies of Neil Simon

Simon's cinema: Murder by Death, California Suite, and The Lonely Guy

by | October 3, 2007 | Comments

After toning down the crude and turning up the cute (even
giving Jimmy
Fallon
a chance in
Fever Pitch
!) for
the last six years, the Farrelly brothers return to R-rated raunch territory
with The
Heartbreak Kid
,
opening this Friday. It’s a remake of the 1972
Neil Simon
film of the same name and this week we’ll journey through the New York
playwright’s presence throughout cinematic history.

Unlike most playwrights, financial success greeted
Simon on his
first play, a Tony nomination for the second, and from them on his reputation as
one of contemporary America’s finest writers — capable of light comedy,
absurdist humor, and drama, often within one pen stroke — was cemented. Like
Woody Allen,
Reggie Jackson,
The Ramones, and
most other artists indelibly associated with New York, the height of Simon’s
powers and fame existed within the 1970s.  This was the decade of the American
New Wave, celebrating the urban landscape in all of its profane glory.  Pauline
Kael
and Andrew Sarris
were turning film criticism into an art. The New York auteur became an accepted,
well-recognized beast. And Broadway plays were being adapted into film with
surprising regularity (and not just those funny musical ones).

Four of Simon’s plays had been adapted to the screen by the
time he contributed his first original screenplay,
The Out of
Towners
(60 percent), starring
Jack Lemmon
and Sandy Dennis
Afterwards, original works and adapted screenplays started coming out of the
Simon woodwork at a steady clip. You know of (and probably have already seen)
The Odd Couples,
Biloxi Blues (76
percent), and
The Goodbye Girl
(75 percent). Here’s some of the lesser-known cinematic
works of Neil Simon.

Imagine some of the most iconic detectives — Charlie Chan,
Nick and Nora Charles, Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade, and Miss Marple — as
re-envisioned by an immature writer.  A really smart, immature writer. In 1976’s
Murder by Death
(73 percent), written for the screen by Simon, an ensemble of detectives
are invited out to the countryside for a night of food, entertainment, and, of
course, murder. Simon sublimely spoofs the murder mystery with Murder by Death,
and stuffs in more penis, poop, and tongue-in-cheek jokes you’d though possible
coming from the mouths of such a reputable cast.  Highlights include
Peter
Sellers
as Sydney Wang, the Chan rip-off who spouts lame profundities in
broken English, and
Alec Guinness
as the blind butler who definitely maybe commits a few murders.

When
Truman Capote
enjoyed that mid-decade renaissance with two movies (Capote,
Infamous) and
publication of his long-lost first novel, Summer Crossing, it was surprising Murder by Death didn’t surge in
popularity. Capote makes a late game appearance in the film as a cranky,
eccentric millionaire ("Say your ******* pronouns!" Capote yells to the
syntax-challenged Wang) who has a lengthy meta spiel about the lameness of
murder mysteries.

Sometimes you write a piece that’s too good to throw away,
but way too short to turn into a play.  What do you do then?  If you’re Neil
Simon, you cobble them all together, centering the vignettes around a single
location.  1978’s
California Suite

(50 percent) is the middle of this loose trilogy, including
Plaza Suite (40
percent) and London
Suite

Four completely
unrelated groups converge on a Beverly Hills hotel, among them Walter Matthau
as a man who, after a night of poor, drunken judgment, must hide the unconscious
girl in his bed from his wife (Elaine May). Matthau brilliantly juggles
slapstick and simpering pathos — another notch for someone who’s never given a
lousy performance.

From Alvy Singer to John McClane, the “New Yorkers trapped in
Southern California” trope has been a limitless wellspring for comedy.  Simon once
famously proclaimed there’s only 72 interesting people in Los Angeles (as
opposed to the six million in New York) and the City of Angels in California
Suite
clearly comes from an East Coast perspective. Simon explicitly explores
this with the Alan
Alda
Jane
Fonda
storyline. Alda plays a reformed New Yorker who now sports a tan and a
polyester wardrobe, while Fonda plays his verbosely cranky ex-wife on a forced
visit to LA. Simon is transfixed on the possibility that a New Yorker can
somehow turn into a West Coast creep. In one scene Alda and Fonda will be
arguing about this subject, and in the next they’re randomly coolin’ on some
beach.  California!

There’s only a few blemishes on
Steve Martin‘s
formidable portfolio of 1980s comedies.  And they’re not necessarily bad, just
relatively unknown.  One of them is 1984’s
The Lonely Guy

(50 percent), based on a book called The Lonely Guy’s Book of Life
and adapted by Neil Simon. Martin stars as Larry Hubbard, a aspiring novelist
who becomes a Lonely Guy (yes, it’s an oft-used term in the movie) after getting
dumped. He befriends
Charles Grodin,
another Lonely Guy, and they embark on a life possibly spent alone, together. 
They buy ferns, dogs, go out to dinners, and throw parties with cardboard
cut-outs of celebrities. Martin is reliably funny, but Grodin steals the show
with warm performance keeps the movie grounded, and a perfect contrast to
Martin’s manic movements. It makes Grodin current self-exile from movies all the
more painful.

The Lonely Guy‘s surreal tone and sappy romantic
story takes a very long time before they gel, but there’s more than a handful of
comedic nuggets to keep this movie compelling. In true New York fashion, random
bits of Martin and Grodin talking about nothing in particular are interspersed
throughout.  The highlight comes in a lengthy discussion about hair and how
bums, who don’t even need hair, seem so capable of keeping it together.  It’s
the best

Seinfeld
segment never put on TV.

Having entered his 80th year this past July, it’s understandable why Simon has slowed down in recent years. His last film was a TV adaptation of The Goodbye Girl with Richard Dreyfuss, and his last play was in 2003. But New York artists are known for their longevity. With the New York auteur making a comeback, who’s next?

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