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
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
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
(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
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.

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

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
clearly comes from an East Coast perspective. Simon explicitly explores
this with the Alan
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

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?

Tag Cloud

Elton John science fiction TCM Writers Guild of America 2018 Sundance Fantasy 24 frames Christmas disaster Winter TV singing competition crime drama richard e. Grant Discovery Channel Mudbound FX hist movies game of thrones harry potter Reality Competition Family DC Universe Winners movie TCA Thanksgiving FOX Classic Film SXSW cults composers Adult Swim police drama canceled TV shows cops APB VH1 GIFs Arrowverse Best and Worst Tubi Mary Poppins Returns spy thriller television CW Seed CBS All Access BBC X-Men dceu Peacock Disney Channel hispanic Esquire joker cats sag awards festivals Sci-Fi transformers romance Lionsgate Brie Larson NBC toy story ratings comic period drama jamie lee curtis Set visit See It Skip It ghosts MCU independent 2019 vampires Countdown dogs Lifetime YouTube Spectrum Originals Spike HBO comiccon doctor who USA Network Britbox E! PBS OWN zero dark thirty Women's History Month Mindy Kaling serial killer El Rey Toys romantic comedy Syfy 71st Emmy Awards spider-man sequel social media Dark Horse Comics streaming ESPN adaptation Holidays video Tarantino historical drama Film Festival ITV Polls and Games crossover TruTV blockbuster Nickelodeon mockumentary documentary political drama war CBS series Calendar Apple TV+ Starz Acorn TV stand-up comedy award winner Amazon Crackle Trailer batman SundanceTV Freeform revenge Marvel Television 45 crime thriller Animation 2017 Stephen King A24 TBS Binge Guide Extras Shondaland Interview thriller Mystery animated YouTube Red Schedule adventure based on movie aliens Red Carpet strong female leads golden globes Epix E3 TCA Winter 2020 Rocky screenings Disney streaming service travel Television Academy Lucasfilm 2016 Rock YouTube Premium diversity Photos Election Rocketman 2020 theme song Baby Yoda Musicals Universal space Marathons American Society of Cinematographers President docudrama Certified Fresh cancelled Western cancelled TV series SDCC slashers crime Tomatazos Horror The Witch Trivia Turner Classic Movies Fox News blaxploitation rotten movies we love Apple TV Plus zombie Emmys Hulu The Arrangement indie Comics on TV renewed TV shows discovery Ghostbusters Columbia Pictures Vudu Podcast true crime cooking versus children's TV anime Crunchyroll Country OneApp TV Land biography mutant Spring TV GLAAD Comic Book Awards Turner 2015 Action book VICE Chernobyl ABC Family LGBTQ Holiday halloween GoT Walt Disney Pictures psycho ABC Cosplay Valentine's Day MTV Lifetime Christmas movies Amazon Prime Infographic AMC quibi canceled Bravo HBO Max Drama Superheroes werewolf CNN Reality LGBT Teen Sneak Peek what to watch Disney+ Disney Plus directors Shudder 007 The Walking Dead Amazon Studios Premiere Dates Rom-Com DirecTV 21st Century Fox Cannes Hallmark Christmas movies TNT Ellie Kemper Nat Geo breaking bad Netflix Christmas movies Music Logo elevated horror DC streaming service talk show Fall TV Sundance TV christmas movies tv talk name the review A&E natural history spanish language CMT binge Disney Plus Netflix cartoon facebook History medical drama NYCC robots Masterpiece Academy Awards Chilling Adventures of Sabrina reboot dragons Summer teaser DGA Ovation Grammys Star Trek Disney DC Comics Trophy Talk Heroines Year in Review cars The Purge Pirates comics TV renewals WarnerMedia TCA 2017 Food Network dramedy Comedy finale psychological thriller IFC supernatural Showtime TLC Paramount Network south america miniseries free movies technology zombies foreign Opinion witnail politics Pixar Apple Paramount spinoff justice league Endgame Song of Ice and Fire anthology kids Amazon Prime Video Pride Month MSNBC Character Guide FXX IFC Films 20th Century Fox Marvel Studios First Look Mary Tyler Moore TV Quiz RT History Warner Bros. green book Pop cinemax PaleyFest Oscars Watching Series The CW USA Tumblr screen actors guild Creative Arts Emmys Box Office dc WGN BET RT21 Star Wars Mary poppins Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Anna Paquin Pet Sematary Super Bowl TIFF cancelled television boxoffice San Diego Comic-Con spain Sony Pictures sitcom YA Video Games nature Cartoon Network Marvel unscripted Superheroe Captain marvel Martial Arts cancelled TV shows sports First Reviews casting Sundance Now Biopics Awards Tour Emmy Nominations Black Mirror Film Avengers Comedy Central New York Comic Con Musical Nominations game show Kids & Family Hallmark BBC America latino National Geographic