Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Sunshine Boys

This is one of those movies I've been meaning to see for years. But, you know how it is. Try walking into a Blockbuster and requesting a movie like the Sunshine Boys and watch the reaction you'll get. But now that I have Netflix, and now that Netflix has access to just about every movie ever made -- well, I had no excuse. About the best compliment I can pay this movie is that I wish I had seen it years ago, since that would've meant I could've spent all those years since rewatching it over and over again. Simply put, this is as good and as entertaining and as satisfying as any movie I've ever seen.

The plot is simple: Two old, washed-up, Vaudeville comics who have refused to talk to one another for decades are offered the opportunity to reunite for a TV special... and hilarity ensues. The script is by comedy legend Neil Simon and based on his play, it is directed by Herbert Ross (master director of such films as The Goodbye Girl, Funny Lady, and, um, Footloose), and the two ex-Vaudeville stars are played by Walter Matthau (the greatest character actor in the history of American cinema) and George Burns (quite possibly the greatest comedian who has ever walked the Earth). The first scene reuniting the two stars as they bicker over how to rehearse their famous "Doctor Sketch" might be the best piece of acting, directing, and writing that I've ever seen in any movie. Or maybe it was just because it had George Burns and Walter Matthau, who could've read from the phonebook together and somehow it still would've been the best thing ever captured on film.

The only other major role in the film is played by Richard Benjamin, who I'm not surprised you haven't heard of, but you'll recognize his face. He is one of those guys who was a dependable character actor all through the seventies, but then he moved more behind the scenes as a writer and director as the film industry changed. He still pops up in various roles here and there, usually playing somebody's dad, and he's always funny and charming. But I've never seen him better than he was here as the nephew and agent of the insufferable character played by Matthau. Benjamin wasn't even nominated for a supporting actor Oscar, but he sure deserved one. Then again, no acting award could be better than the opportunity to star in a movie where every scene you have is either with George Burns or Walter Matthau. The Supporting Actor Oscar actually did go to George Burns for this movie, and as well deserved as it may have been, it was probably more for his overall career in show business than for any bravura acting on his part. Walter Matthau received a nomination for Best Actor, and I'm sure he would've won it any year that didn't have Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Also fun are a bunch of small roles by young actors who went on to bigger and better things, like Howard Hesseman, Ron Rifkin, and F. Murray Abraham as a car mechanic.

About the story there is very little else to say since it is very simple. But being very simple doesn't mean it isn't brilliantly done. It's little more than a love letter to Vaudeville, though there is also some commentary on aging, friendship, family, and subtle jabs at the film industry itself. Its origins as a stage play are very obvious, since there are maybe three main sets and every scene is just two or three people talking with very little movement. But that's all I wanted to see from these actors anyway, so that's not a complaint. The big scene toward the end where we finally see the famous Doctor Sketch is a brilliantly funny and accurate homage to an old Vaudeville comedy routine, but honestly, all of the scenes leading up to it were so brilliant and so funny, that it wasn't the showstopper that it should've been. It's hard to have a comedy sketch stand out in a film where Neil Simon is clearing writing everything one long comedy sketch. The scene does work, however, as a stand alone piece of comedy and as a testament to how these comedians were willing to put aside any anger or resentment or animosity simply to make the bit work and have the audience laugh.

 The DVD has a few neat extras, a look at the making of the film and even some screen tests by Phil Silvers and Jack Benny. Wow. That movie would've been amazing too. They should've just gone ahead and filmed those two in the same roles back to back with the main production. Hell, they should've made dozens of movies based on the script and just interchanged old performers like Red Buttons, Art Carny, Milton Berle, Red Fox, Jack Albertson, Morey Amsterdam... I'll stop now, but trust me I could go on and on about the people who could play either of these roles to perfection. Since it has been a long-running stage play for years, many of these guys probably were in a production at some point. They even remade the film years later featuring Woody Allen and Peter Falk, which sounds wonderful, but for whatever reason it's almost universally reviled. But, anyway, the film we got has George Burns and Walter Matthau, and it is just about as perfect as any film could be. Just go rent it and relive a little bit of Vaudeville. That kind of comedy never stops being funny.

1 comment:

Justin Garrett Blum said...

It's a shame that movies like this don't get as much play as they should. I mean, how about if instead of showing Wedding Crashers for the 2 billionth time on TNT, they went and got something like this.

I actually haven't seen The Sunshine Boys, but I rewatched The Odd Couple about a month ago. Still one of the funniest movies ever made.