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Jack Palmer is a social worker whose job has taken precedence over his personal life. Mainly, his job is to help four mentally challenged men live regular lives in a home. They consist of: Norman, who works at a donut shop and has a thing for keys; Barry, who thinks he is a golf pro and doesn't communicate well with his father; Arnold, who is into all things Russian and has a habit of spending money; and Lucien, who is into Spider Man and must testify before the state senate. Jack wants to help them, but he also thinks it is time to move on with his life. The hard part is trying to say goodbye to the guys he cares about. Written by
Pat McCurry <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Film's Heavy-Handedness Loses Graces of Stage Production
A viewer unfamiliar with the original stage production won't realize how much was lost in transitioning this story to the (small) screen, but playgoers will be intensely disappointed with the script revisions to Tom Griffin's original story, which equally emphasized the joys as well as the sorrows of these four men. This film version is a surprisingly humorless tale, made unnecessarily darker by the screenwriters' need to snow-shovel "substance" and "meaning" into every scene. In the play, for example, the visit by next door neighbor, Mrs. Warren, is played strictly for laughs, but in the film the humor of the situation is de-emphasized in favor of stressing, as it does ad nausium, both the barriers "the boys" face and the mounting pressures placed on their caregiver, Jack.
In fact, all we see in this telling are barriers: Arnold's inability to keep from being exploited, Barry's inability to keep from being abused by his father, Norman's and Sheila's inability to express affection for each other, Lucian's inability to express himself at all. It's telling that the only positive outcome in the film is that Jack's marriage is repaired in the last reel which, in typical Hollywood "happy ending" style, was grafted onto the story. In the original, Jack was divorced at curtain's rise and his not-so-subtle bitterness at this was an added facet to his increasing burn-out, not a full-blown sub-plot.
That the producers of the film chose to focus more on Jack's marriage than on `The Boys' betrays the discomfort they had with the humorous aspects of the material. This impression is amplified by the way Barry is portrayed. There's a far greater emphasis on Barry in the film, and the film Barry is a far more menacing character than the stage version. It's not enough to have Barry's dad drag him out to a driving range to traumatize him (a sequence far longer than in the stage version), but we have yet another Barry-centered `crisis' near the end of the film as well.
The producers unceasingly emphasis the darker aspects of the story, and both the characters and the story itself suffer as a result. In the stage production, Arnold's run-in with the corner grocer comes and is dealt with in the first part of the first act. The point that he is exploited, as many mentally disabled are, is made through Arnold's soliloquizing his troubles with a bully named Melvin. What is completely lost in the film is that Arnold is completely oblivious to the fact that he is being exploited (a point that perhaps network executives might not want made on commercial television).
To their credit, the screenwriters did try to replicate the two most effective stage effects of the original productions, the `dance scene' and Lucian's speech. Irritatingly, they undercut the meaning of both sequences with the cheap cinematic effect of showing us Jack's face in close-up before both of them, so we get the message, `this is how Jack sees them,' rather than `this is how they really are!' Given that the screenwriters were more interested in showing `the boys' as problems rather than people, it's not surprising that they were allowed to shine only in Jack's eyes, not in theirs, or ours.
That's not to say there aren't any redeeming qualities to the film production. The relationship between Arnold and Mrs. Fremus, which begs the question, `which of these two people is saner?' is a nice addition. But here, again, what's emphasized is the negative aspect of the relationship (Arnold is again exploited, this time for the cost of a magazine subscription). Always, it's the negative aspects of their lives that we're forced to see, again and again.
Most heartbreaking was the portrayals of Norman and Sheila. Both Nathan Lane and Mare Winningham are both truly gifted actors, but to say I was disappointed by their interpretations would be a gross understatement. Mr. Lane chooses to play Norman as a caricature, offering us little more than a Lou Costello impersonation. And Ms. Winningham plays Sheila as sullen and aloof, in complete contradiction to the lines she was given. The most joyful and uplifting scene in the entire show, the scene where Norman gives Sheila her keys (can the analogy be any less obvious?!?) is played in the film as yet another excuse to show how incomplete and imperfect their lives are. In the play, we see how much Norman and Sheila make each other happy. Their love for each other sustains them as does any other two people deeply in love. But in the film, all we see is what they're not.
And that's the chief difference between the stage and film versions of The Boys Next Door. In the play, we see the problems, yes, and the limitations, but we're also allowed to laugh with them and share their joys. In the film version, all we get are the sorrows. In the stage production, we get to spend two hours with people we get to know and love and will truly miss when it's time to go. In the film version, we're told a sad story about sad people who we end up feeling sorry for.
I felt sorry for film Norman, but I fell in love with stage Norman. The film is okay for what it is, but you'll only get the chance to really fall in love with `The Boys Next Door' if you experience it on the stage. For it's there, and only there, that they truly do shine.
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