At the heart of Neil Simon’s vaunted merriment, there is a chronic whine. His characters never get satisfaction: they pay the amount on the price tag but aren’t happy with the goods. Simon, the king of kvetch, can manufacture endless plaints of disappointment. In a way, this is an authentic enough expression of a contemporary social behavior, but because his characters can’t raise themselves above the level of chagrined consumers they seem trivialized, caught in the rut of petty self-pity.
Even in The Sunshine Boys, Simon’s best play now translated into an unusually unpleasing film by Herbert Ross, the mirth is undermined by an almost involuntary crabbiness. The material itself is richer than Simon’s usual fare, and for once it’s something for which he has a real affection: the plight of aged vaudevillians. Simon is clearly stirred by this world of ancient routines, of the comedy teams, their split-ups and realignments. He gives us one such team, Lewis and Clark (played by George Burns and Walter Matthau), who performed together for 43 years, split up in the mid-1960s, and reunite for an appearance on a TV special. The problem, inevitably, is that they detest one another; neither has anything but praise for the other’s professional skill, but their personal relationship is a calamity. They are now both in their mid-seventies, but dotage has brought no mellowing: Lewis has settled into a suburban retirement, surrounded by grandchildren, while Clark meets the will to perform with senile confusion and ageless orneriness.
The film hungers for a reconciliation at fade-out, but instead of effecting it naturally Simon has to rig it out with ugly quarrels, professional breakdowns and heart attacks. But the worst miscalculation is the climactic scene at the TV studio, where Lewis and Clark recreate their most famous sketch. Instead of letting us see that the talent of these men is transcendent, a justification in some way for their tantrums, Simon exposes them as mediocre, unfunny nothings. In the crunch, instead of celebrating the comics of the past, he dumps on them.
That scene didn’t misfire so badly in Alan Arkin’s stage production, where the teamwork of Jack Albertson and Sam Levene managed to create a magic almost against the grain of the script. Its failure on film is symptomatic of how Simon’s screenplay and Ross’s unsympathetic direction have coarsened the subject. These Sunshine Boys are viewed from the outside: the eccentricities of the aged are regarded as a comic peepshow. Walter Matthau, as Clark, does a lot of ostentatious simulation of age, but his booming performance is charmless, and his sudden plunges into pathos are embarrassing. George Burns’s Lewis keeps a frail dignity, and his sense of measured repose is the best thing in the film, but the character still doesn’t make sense. His newfound sweetness—Burns is likable as he never was on TV—makes the character’s transition into a stage tyrant seem an unlikely fiction, a classic example of Simon-impure plot machinery. URJO KAREDA
Flogging a dead bird
ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST Directed by Milos Forman One decade’s rallying cry is another’s pipsqueak echo. When Ken Kesey’s novel, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, was published in 1962 it was worshipped in campus coffee shops everywhere. It has taken 13 years to reach the screen and now turns up too late. There is probably still an audience naïve enough to see its exploration of sanity and insanity as insightful, but for many it will now seem humiliatingly simplistic.
Kesey’s metaphor is an insane asylum that represents Society. The inmates feel some need to be cured of their personality quirks (which of course make them Individuals); consequently, they submit themselves to the power of unfeeling Authority, in the person of the dreaded Nurse Ratched. The Irony is twofold: first, that Authority’s role is not to restore Social Order but to retain Disorder so that she herself can maintain Power, and, second, that the behavior of the insane is no different from that of the allegedly sane. (You keep praying that the film won’t actually spell this out, but Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman’s screenplay knows no mercy where cliches are concerned.)
Into this schema, Kesey deposits his avenging angel, R. P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), a wild, friendly jailbird who’s had himself declared insane to evade a prison sentence. He quickly begins producing antibodies to Ratched’s poisonous authoritarian regime, organizing the inmates into a coherent opposition, taking them on an unauthorized sailing outing, and bringing women and liquor into the ward. Authority, of course, is no mean infighter herself. But if McMurphy is a casualty in the struggle, he has passed his spiritual legacy on to Chief Bromden, a giant Indian assumed to be both deaf and dumb until McMurphy gets him to respond. Both Ratched and Chief Bromden are excruciatingly crude melodramatic polarities, Bitch-Castrator and Noble Savage respectively, and it’s to their credit that Louise Lletcher and Will Sampson breathe some tiny plausibility into these roles.
tiny plausibility Not that Milos Lorman’s film version makes any rash concessions to plausibility. The inmates are an invariably lovable group, with the careful comic assortment—a funny little fatty teamed with a tall, lanky beanpole—that one is used to seeing in humorous treatments of army platoons. There is never a hint that any of them might be disturbed or dangerous, even to themselves. The film first mocks them as comic acts (“Look at the funny old lunatic dancing with himself’) and then reveres them as heartwarming charmers. They are figurines in a rigged narrative which feeds an instinct both for clear-eyed anarchy and for gross sentimentality. Jack Nicholson’s easy looseness helps to humanize the revolutionary motif, but nothing can redeem the film’s eagerness to be a big, “haunting” poetic statement— particularly not Jack Nitzsche’s musical score, which makes its own contribution to insanity in our time.o
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.