Based upon a script that’s arguably the best original screenplay Neil Simon ever wrote, The Goodbye Girl became a massive feel-good hit and netted costar Richard Dreyfuss an Academy Award for Best Actor. And, indeed, though the movie’s title accurately identifies the leading character as a single mom who has become gun-shy about relationships, Dreyfuss dominates the movie with his enjoyably hyperactive performance. The simple story begins with thirtysomething New Yorker Paula McFadden (Marsha Mason) getting dumped by the actor with whom she and her young daughter have been living. Compounding his caddishness, the actor sublets his apartment to Elliot Garfield (Dreyfuss), a fellow thespian relocating from Chicago to New York.
Arriving one rainy night and expecting entrée into his new abode, Elliot bickers with Paula until she lets him to crash in her daughter’s room so they can resolve their peculiar situation in the morning. Despite initially finding Paula shrewish, Elliot consents to let her use half the apartment (and pay half the expenses) while he rehearses for his off-Broadway debut in a new production of Richard III. This sitcom-style setup clears the way for an unlikely love story, with Paula lowering her guard every time Elliot demonstrates compassion, even though he’s narcissistic and overbearing.
The movie’s most endearing contrivance is that Elliot develops a warmly paternal attachment to Paula’s precocious daughter, Lucy (Quinn Cummings), who finds his artistic quirks endearing. Using this plot device, Simon shows a surrogate family taking shape. Trite, to be sure, but winning nonetheless, thanks to Simon’s meticulous character work and rat-a-tat jokes.
Director Herbert Ross, a former dancer, uses the main location (the apartment shared by the protagonists) like a dance floor. Actors flit in and out of rooms, glide from one space to the next, and generally move across the screen with such velocity that it seems like the story is progressing at lightning speed. Ross brings equal skill to absurd scenes set at theater rehearsals, so the bits in which an asshole director played by Paul Benedict instructs Elliot to play Richard III as a screaming queen are very funny.
Some critics have rightfully lamented that The Goodbye Girl gets exhausting after a while, and it’s true that the movie’s energy level is pitched very high from start to finish. Furthermore, Dreyfuss delivers dialogue so quickly, and with such great intensity, that he literally gets red-faced from effort at regular intervals. However, his high-octane acting is complemented by Mason’s comparatively restrained work, and by Cummings’ guileless likeability. (Whether her characterization is believable is another matter, but old-before-their-years kids are a crowd-pleasing comedy staple.) Yet the most important virtue of The Goodbye Girl is the fact that the love story works: We see Elliot and Paula improve each other’s lives without altering their respective identities. Therefore, even if the movie sometimes tries too hard, one can’t argue with results.