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.

Mediocre: The Odd Couple II

The Odd Couple II (1998)
Directed by Howard Deutch
Written by Neil Simon
Produced by Robert W. Cort, David Madden, Neil Simon, Elena Spiotta
Starring Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Mary Beth Peil, Jonathan Silverman, Lisa Waltz, Richard Riehle, Christine Baranski, Jean Smart
Thirty years elapsed between the filmic success of Simon’s lovably insufferable squabblers and this reunion miscalculated to capitalize on the revived popularity of two much older, grumpier men. Lemmon’s carping, persnickety hypochondriac and Matthau’s insouciantly inept sloven bicker en route through picturesque rural California to the wedding of Felix’s daughter (Peil) and Oscar’s son (Silverman), sustaining afoot lost luggage, a detonated rental car, Mexican smugglers, an impendent corpse (Barnard Hughes), redneck hussies (Baranski, Smart) and one another, their recriminative irritation meliorated not a jot in their advanced years. Approximately one of Simon’s every four cracks and gags is legitimately funny (a miserably promising ratio by contemporary standards), and his leading men optimize these with unerring comic timing and persisting chemistry. Alas, uncoordinated direction by Deutch — who’s never managed a decent film without John Hughes’ patronage — and Seth Flaum’s horrendous editing often spoil whatever the stars salvage; after every other punch line, poorly composed shots either cut away abruptly or linger too long. Still worse, Alan Silvestri’s twee, drippy score (possibly his very worst) loudly and repeatedly diverts from rather than complementing any onscreen humor. Silverman plays Oscar’s son as a cloying candy-ass and inadvertent warning against the folly of flighty single motherhood, but the supporting cast is otherwise tolerable, notwithstanding Baranski in a creepily carnal context. It’s all paltry and far too late for a priceless pair whose audience was expeditiously expiring by the late ’90s, and ought’ve been exploited decades earlier: in lieu of the negligible telecast series, Lemmon and Matthau might have been reunited in a quartet of theatrical sequels circa ’71-’86, scripted by the likes of Andrew Bergman and helmed by proven comedic directors such as Ramis or Hiller. Instead, this final outing by one of Old Hollywood’s most gifted twosomes finds them struggling to modest yet meritorious achievement in their twilight years to excite a few laughs in a barely mediocre vehicle.