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Neil Simon wrote this updated version of his 1972 Broadway play about a film agent's efforts to recombine the once famous comedy pair Lewis and Clark, played by Woody Allen and Peter Falk. Written by
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The original Broadway production of "The Sunshine Boys" by Neil Simon opened at the Broadhurst Theater in New York on December 20, 1972, ran for 538 performances and was nominated for the 1973 Tony Award (New York City) for the Best Play. See more »
Less a remake than a rewrite, this updating of Neil Simon's famed stage comedy is good news/bad news. The bad news is that Simon rewrote the play to make it more contemporary, making the two battling comics relics of the 1950's comedy heyday of live television, rather than an almost forgotten vaudeville team. A logical change, I suppose given the passage of time, but one that Simon did not think out completely.
The good news is that Simon redefined one of the characters to suit the style and the humor of Woody Allen. It's even possible that Woody did a bit of re-writing himself. As such, Woody comes off relatively unscathed. Even so, this made-for-TV movie is itself awkwardly and remarkably unfunny and doesn't really make much sense.
The gist of the material remains the same: A famed comedy duo, Al Lewis and Willie Clark, split up with great animosity, but agree to re-team many years later for a special performance, just for the money. For this premise to work, there has to be a sense that the two worked together as a team and were, indeed, once a great act. It also has to be apparent that the two at least respect each other as talents, even if they hate each other as individuals. None of that is apparent in this film. Indeed, there is absolutely no chemistry whatsoever between Allen and costar Peter Falk. Plus their little bits of comic business fall flat.
Comparisons to the 1976 film version with Walter Matthau and George Burns are inevitable and justified. The Matthau/Burns film, while hardly a great effort, still manages to be an enduring and enjoyable piece of fluff. It plays like a "classic" comedy routine, in that it gets better on repeated viewings, where each gag and joke are anticipated. The bombastic Matthau and the dour, unassuming Burns work well as a team, even as they perform together with conflicting styles. In neither film is it obvious that their so-called legendary comedy skits were at all funny -- which may be intentional -- but at least in the 1976 version the off-stage theatrics click.
In updating the story, the characters are supposedly veterans of fifties television, a style of comedy that is broad by today's standards, but subdued compared to the farce of vaudeville. Nobody seems to have told Falk of the change, as he overplays his role with a fierce, almost reckless hamminess (and a totally out of place Borscht Belt accent) that makes Matthau's bombast look like sleep walking. There is nothing lovable, likable or even amusing about Falk's performance: It is just plain bad. Indeed, instead of playing him as a crotchety old coot, Falk makes Willie Clark seem frighteningly mentally unstable.
This stands in sharp contrast to Allen, who plays his role with a degree of realism, or at least the type of realism that is the trademark of his other films. Gone is the slow, doddering, benign frustration of Burns' Oscar-winning interpretation, replaced by a character who, at sixty-something, is still quick-witted and energetic -- a character not unlike Woody Allen. Though he plays the part with a bit more snideness and exasperation, Allen doesn't fall back on an old-folks stereotype. Indeed, by the end of the film, his Al Lewis is not planning to head for a retirement home, but has his sites set on a show business comeback.
But despite a thoughtful performance, Allen doesn't get many laughs either, largely because he is cast as the straight man. Allen's straight-faced, disbelieving reactions to Falk's asinine behavior seems all too real. Falk and Allen seem to be in two different movies, if not two different universes; Falk is doing vaudeville schlock, while Allen is into modern irony. The play is about two comics who can't communicate in any way but through their humor, but Falk and Allen aren't even using the same comic language, or for that matter telling the same jokes.
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