Thursday, April 14, 2016

Star Spangled Girl (1971)

          While not an outright flop, Neil Simon’s comic play The Star Spangled Girl ran for less than nine months in 1966 and 1967, a disappointment given the outsized expectations created by Simon’s previous successes—Barefoot in the Park had a four-year run, The Odd Couple lasted more than two years, and so on. Ever the pragmatist, Simon agreed with critics that The Star Spangled Girl was not his best work, a notion instead of a premise, and the play’s clumsy engagement with ’60s counterculture revealed that politics were not good fodder for Simon’s imagination. Nonetheless, Simon’s name had gained sufficient marketplace value by the early ’70s that even his failures were given screen adaptations, hence this middling and tiresome romantic comedy.
          In 1970s Los Angeles, impoverished activist Andy Hobart (Tony Roberts) publishes an underground newspaper, The Nitty Gritty, out of the filthy garden apartment he shares with his one and only contributor, brilliant but eccentric Norman Cornell (Todd Susman). Andy makes ends meet through chicanery and petty theft. One day, wholesome would-be Olympic swimmer Amy Cooper (Sandy Duncan) moves into the same apartment complex, and Norman becomes infatuated with her, which distracts him from writing. Norman harasses Amy relentlessly, breaking into her apartment and spray-painting love messages all over town, but she finds him repellant. Eventually, Andy persuades Amy to take a part-time job at the paper, hoping this will inspire Norman to resume his work. Predictably, Amy and Andy fall in love, putting a wedge into Andy’s friendship with Norman.
           At its most tedious, the film features drab political “debates” between Amy and Andy, she the aw-shucks heartland gal and he the intellectual pinko. It is beyond inconceivable that these characters find each other attractive. Even though screenwriters Arnold Margolin and Jim Parks tweaked Simon’s narrative to pull the story forward into the ’70s, traces of the play’s temporal origins peek through the surface in unhelpful ways. It’s as if this movie desperately wants to engage with the fraught political atmosphere of the period during which the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War were escalating, but lacks the nerve to do so. Furthermore, because Star Spangled Girl forefronts romantic banter and sight gags, the sense that something more substantial is being suppressed makes the film feel even more trivial than it might otherwise. In sum, Star Spangled Girl pairs frenetic silliness with unformed political musings, so the film strikes out on two levels at once.
          That said, Roberts—later to become a staple in a decade’s worth of Woody Allen movies—delivers Simon’s one-liners well, and both Duncan and Susman exhibit boundless energy. Star Spangled Girl also contains a peculiar shout-out to another movie: During one early scene, a lookalike for Midnight Cowboy character Joe Buck references Buck’s experiences in that film.

Star Spangled Girl: FUNKY

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