Monday, May 2, 2011

The Sunshine Boys (1975)

          Boasting one of Neil Simon’s best scripts, two master comedians in the leading roles, and smooth dancer-turned-director Herbert Ross behind the camera, The Sunshine Boys should be sheer pleasure from beginning to end. And indeed, the premise is wonderful: Two aging vaudeville comedians who haven’t spoken since the breakup of their world-famous duo reunite for a TV special, only to discover they still detest each other. Furthermore, Simon’s characterizations are sharp, his signature one-liners are plentiful, and the “doctor sketch” he contrives for the comedians masterfully evokes vaudeville’s mile-a-minute style of corny jokes and sight gags.
          In the story, Willy Clark (Walter Matthau) is a belligerent, self-involved senior living in Manhattan, constantly haranguing his agent/nephew, Ben (Richard Benjamin), for new work even though Clark’s memory is dodgy and his attitude is so terrible no one wants to deal with him anymore. Meanwhile, Clark’s ex-partner, Al Lewis (George Burns), has spent the last decade enjoying a quiet retirement in New Jersey. When Ben receives a lucrative offer for the duo’s TV reunion, the old partners slip into a familiar dance of hostility and recrimination—Lewis makes sport of driving Clark crazy, and Clark can’t keep his temper in check.
          The long sequences of Ben trying to coax the aging vaudevillians into doing the TV special are terrific, because Benjamin’s amiable frustration grounds the leading actors’ respective shticks. Burns is fantastic in a role that represented a huge comeback for the showbiz legend at the age of 80, and he won a well-deserved Oscar for unleashing his avuncular charm and perfectly preserved comic timing. So why doesn’t this movie go down more smoothly? These things are a matter of taste, but for me this is a rare instance of Matthau being the weak link. He’s hindered by the fact that Clark is written as an insufferable son of a bitch, a man so deeply unhappy that he attacks everyone in his path.
          To his credit, Matthau commits to the character wholeheartedly—his performance is so grating that it’s hard to trudge through the muck long enough to discover Clark’s redeeming qualities. And in the movie’s defense, the characterization is believable even though it’s not particularly entertaining. As Lewis points out, Clark is a hard-working professional who derives no joy from his work, whereas Lewis is a naturally funny individual whose professional life was a breeze. Therefore Clark is understandably embittered by the fact that he can’t practice his trade anymore, because he feels like a man without a purpose. This deeper aspect of Clark’s character is what makes The Sunshine Boys more than just a laugh machine, and the last scenes of the movie are quite poignant because Clark gets a much-needed reality check.
          Getting there, however, is more of a chore than seems absolutely necessary.

The Sunshine Boys: GROOVY

1 comment:

Tommy Ross said...

Not only did Neil Simon hit it out of the park with this one, this is perhaps the best representation of any of his plays. Walter Matthau and George Burns are amazing together, total chemistry and spot-on timing. Richard Benjamin is also great, LOVE this movie, so many funny lines.