Mediocre: Max Dugan Returns

Max Dugan Returns (1983)
Directed by Herbert Ross
Written by Neil Simon
Produced by Herbert Ross, Neil Simon, Roger M. Rothstein
Starring Marsha Mason, Jason Robards, Donald Sutherland, Matthew Broderick, Dody Goodman, Charley Lau, Sal Viscuso
That title suggests a sequel that isn’t, and hardly contributed to the fortune of this fair flop, which exhibits its big names operating at mixed competencies. Twenty-eight years and a consequential chasm of bitterness are measured by a glib and wily scamster (Robards) when he pays a visit to his estranged daughter, a lucklessly penurious schoolteacher (Mason), who first spurns the shady old goat’s $687K of purloined cash offered in exchange for their rapprochement and quality time with his grandson (Broderick)…until his entreaty elaborates that his final few forthcoming months are especially precious, ere his failing heart beats its last. Within his first week of residence with them, he buys new appliances and utensils to replace those aged and faulty in their kitchen, and for her son a deluxe entertainment center, boombox, camcorder, and batting lessons courtesy of former ballplayer and batting coach Lau…while inadvertently drawing unwanted notice from the dexterous, decided detective (Sutherland) who may not be so smitten with his daughter as to ignore mounting felonious clues. Simon’s specially snappy script should satisfy his fans: his every other line’s an amusing zinger, and nary a single conversation’s bereft of badinage that meets his usual standard. Would that his story was as solid as his dialogue and premise, for so much of it is nonsensical. Why does Robards’s ex-con tender his largess with increasing conspicuity when he’s otherwise so cautious in concern of the police’s attentions? Why is he intent on domiciling with his daughter and incidentally involving her as a apparent accessory to his criminality? What’s the point of his mythomaniacal machinations when they elicit so few laughs and waste screen time when enjoyable elusion might occur? By opting for spectacle over little surprises to satisfy cinematic conventions, Simon produced a middling, porously plotted tale that could’ve been much more engaging. Robards is charismatically, unfailingly funny as the titular principal, masterfully balancing pathos and irreverence as an incurable constrained but never discouraged by remorse and moribundity. In equally fine form, Sutherland underplays what too many actors wouldn’t to quietly stress his character’s cunning, and Broderick makes the most of his winsome, one-dimensional onscreen debut. The weak link here is Mason, who hits her marks as well as the leading men but plays her hapless widow as an unappealingly shrill shrew. Sensible casting in lieu of Simon’s misplaced nepotism would’ve assigned her role to a bubblier actress like Catherine Hicks, who could invest it with felicity, and bears to Mason no small physical and esp. vocal resemblance. David Shire’s score is pleasant enough, but dated and distractingly miscued; it belongs to some much more energetic comedy produced twenty years prior. Analogously anachronistic are the opening and end titles animated by Kurtz & Friends, which are cute but would’ve better befit a Saturday-morning cartoon, circa ’72. This picture represents a decussation of several careers’ trajectories: Broderick would attain stardom in WarGames a few months later, and Kiefer Sutherland can be spied in a cameo, but after a string of filmic collaborations, it was Simon’s last with both Ross and Mason, who divorced him shortly after its underwhelming theatrical run. His commendation of familial fidelity is admirable, but Simon’s stagey focus on chatter and neglect of structure seldom recommended him…in this medium.

Execrable: The Night We Never Met

The Night We Never Met (1993)
Directed and written by Warren Leight
Produced by Michael Peyser, Robert De Niro, Rudd Simmons, Mary Ann Page, Janet Graham, Daniel Rogosin, Susan Seidelman, Sidney Kimmel, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein
Starring Matthew Broderick, Annabella Sciorra, Kevin Anderson, Justine Bateman, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Tim Guinee, Michelle Hurst, Christine Baranski
Leight’s insipidly indirect contribution to the surplusage of charmless, unfunny, independently produced romantic comedies that glutted American theaters in the ’90s contains all the earmarks of its genus: smarm substituted for sarcasm, painfully proportionate protraction and predictability, and an abject absence of agreeable characters. Obstructed and repelled by the slovenly roommates with whom he shares a flyblown apartment, a precious, superficially cultured delicatesseur (Broderick, at his career’s nadir) employed at Dean & DeLuca who harbors a restauranteur’s aspirations sublets more comfortable and commodious lodgings from a scummily sexist broker (Anderson) biweekly, as does a miserably married dental assistant (Sciorra) who luxuriates only in her painterly avocation. Both men (and the audience) tolerate dismal women: ever a milksop, the fromagier dotes on a dimwitted performance artist (Tripplehorn, burlesquing an atrocious French accent) who works him like her personal punch press, while his piggish landlord’s engaged to magisterial and neanderthaloid dullard Bateman, who couldn’t be more suitable for the role of a dense virago. By correspondence and favors, both of the desperate leaseholders (who repeatedly, adorably miss one other) establish a remote sympathy, but enduringly discommodious misapprehensions characteristic of a plot belabored during a sitcom’s seventh season separate them until a distinctly underwhelming conclusion. It’s far worse a rigor than most flicks of its subgenre: plodding formulaically through its three hoary acts — every development of which any child could readily presage — character development is advanced an inch in toto through wearily dilatory sequences clumsily punctuated by ill-timed fades and lousy editing to the jazzy twee of Evan Lurie’s unbearable score, all parading the inefficiencies of the writer-director and his post-production staff. An apish, clamorous tantrum provoked from Bateman briefly dispels supreme tedium, but cameos from Garry Shandling and Louise Lasser only remind viewers that they could instead be watching something worthwhile, or at least humorous. Impressively, Leight fulfilled what ought be an impossibility by raising the funds to produce an ostensive comedy void of a single amusing scene.