Anger and darkness aren’t the first things that come to mind upon hearing the name “Neil Simon,” but it’s useful to remember an aphorism that was likely coined by TV funnyman Steve Allen: “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” In other words, misfortune is so integral to the soul of humor that exploring the grim subject matter permeating The Prisoner of Second Avenue really wasn’t such a leap for the guy behind such bittersweet classics as The Odd Couple. Where The Prisoner of Second Avenue represents a break from Simon’s usual style, however, is that the writer doesn’t hide pain behind pratfalls. Although the movie, based on Simon’s 1971 play of the same name, has plenty of the writer’s signature rat-a-tat dialogue as well as a steady stream of visual gags, it’s not designed as a laugh riot, per se. Rather, it’s a bitterly satirical exploration of the myriad ways the modern world can drive people insane.
Jack Lemmon and Anne Bancroft, both perfectly cast, star as Mel and Edna Edison, residents of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. During a heat wave that’s compounded by a garbage strike and periodic power outages, Mel spirals toward a nervous breakdown that’s triggered by hassles with neighbors, the loss of a job, a robbery, and other traumas. And when Mel finally decides to fight back at the unjust universe, he manages to pick the wrong target, mistaking a young man (Sylvester Stallone) for a mugger and then chasing the poor guy through Central Park and seizing his wallet, which Mel believes to be his own. Upon discovering his mistake, Mel reports to Edna, “I mugged some kid in the street.” Proving she’s reached her limit, as well, she replies, “How much did we get?”
That wild sequence, which Simon characteristically nails with a perfect comic grace note, is indicative of The Prisoner of Second Avenue’s vibe. In many ways, this is a serious picture about troubling topics, and yet it’s presented flippantly. Not only does the wiseass humor suit the milieu, but it reveals one aspect of Simon’s genius—using jokes to make the exploration of pathos palatable to people who might normally avoid, say, the work of Arthur Miller or Eugene O’Neill. To be clear, neither The Prisoner of Second Avenue nor, for that matter, any of Simon’s stories should be mistaken for titanic literary achievements. Simon writes trifles, and some of them have more nutritional value than others. For instance, the takeaway from The Prisoner of Second Avenue has something to do with gaining perspective and not letting the pressures of daily life metastasize into full-on neuroticism. Simon services these themes well, dramatizing that some of Mel’s problems are of his own making.
Lemmon, who previously appeared in the screen version of Simon’s The Odd Couple (1968) and the Simon screen original The Out-of-Towners (1970), is an ideal vessel for the writer’s laments about obnoxious neighbors, overbearing relatives, and unfeeling corporations. Meanwhile, Bancroft is an excellent foil, playing early scenes straight but then echoing Lemmon’s character with a downward spiral of her own. So, even if producer-director Melvin Frank’s execution is little more than serviceable, the material and the performances are winning. Additionally, The Prisoner of Second Avenue captures a particular time, that being the bad old days when New York City was poised on the edge of oblivion thanks to financial problems, rampant crime, and ubiquitous cynicism.
The Prisoner of Second Avenue: GROOVY