Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Chapter Two (1978)

          James Caan might not seem the most likely candidate to star in a romantic comedy powered by wall-to-wall dialogue, but he does just fine in Chapter Two, which superstar writer Neil Simon adapted from his own play about a widower struggling to rebuild his life with a new romantic partner. The picture shares many similarities with the Simon-penned blockbuster The Goodbye Girl (1977), the success of which the makers of Chapter Two undoubtedly hoped to emulate. Like The Goodbye Girl, this movie depicts grown-ups bickering their way through a relationship fraught with unusual challenges, and like The Goodbye Girl, it stars Marsha Mason as a frazzled modern woman trying to balance her desire for a satisfying professional life with her urge to settle into a traditional marriage. It’s when the similarities between the films end that Chapter Two runs into problems.
          Chapter Two cannot match the previous movie’s brevity or complexity, because Chapter Two extends unnecessarily past the two-hour mark and lacks a truly memorable supporting character like The Goodbye Girl’s wise-beyond-her-years kid. More problematically, Chapter Two is bereft of the previous film’s brilliance—The Goodbye Girl represents Simon’s dialogue and storytelling at its best, whereas Chapter Two is merely commendable. As always, however, Simon’s jokes are his saving grace, because even when Chapter Two gets stuck in dull, plot-oriented sequences, the dialogue is brightly entertaining. As for the overall narrative of Chapter Two, it is exceedingly simple. After writer George Schneider (Caan) loses his wife, George’s horndog brother, Leo (Joseph Bologna), arranges a date for George with Jennie MacLaine (Mason), who is friends with Leo’s friend Faye Medwick (Valerie Harper). Then, while George and Jennie fall into a too-fast romance, the married Leo begins an affair with the neurotic Faye.
          Complications, as the saying goes, ensue.
          The main thrust of Chapter Two is George’s grief, and the difficulty he encounters putting aside the memory of his late wife so he can embrace a future with Jennie. Simon handles this material well, though his script could have used some trimming, and Caan enlivens the movie by juxtaposing darker colors with lighthearted banter. Mason is very good, as well, though her character has a bit of a one-note quality; she’s the endlessly patient woman who waits for a good man to conquer his demons. Still, this is slickly executed grown-up entertainment—one must check the credits to confirm that it was Robert Morse, not Goodbye Girl helmer Herbert Ross, who directed the picture—so it’s a watchable movie even if it’s also an unmemorable one. (Available through Columbia Screen Classics via

Chapter Two: FUNKY

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