Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Sunshine Boys (1975)

The Sunshine Boys is a bright idea, but this Neil Simon effort isn't such a hot effort.

Al Lewis (George Burns) and Willy Clark (Walter Matthau) were one of vaudeville's top acts. They toured together for more than 40 years. Lewis is comfortably retired with his daughter in New Jersey, Clark is still auditioning for small roles in New York City. The years are catching up to Clark. He gets lost and can't remember the few lines he does have to remember.

Clark's nephew, Ben Clark (Richard Benjamin), finds work for his cranky uncle, and his old partner, on a television special. The pair didn't part on good terms. Al is willing to resurrect one of their classic acts. Willy needs a lot more convincing.

Too often The Sunshine Boys runs the same jokes into the ground. Repeated gags riff on how Lewis and Clark each have memory problems. OK. We get it. They're old. Older people have memory problems. Move on. Much time is also spent on Clark's inability to open his hotel room door. Zzzzzz.

We get some heart-to-heart talks between Lewis and Clark, but the latter veteran talent is just angry, angry, angry. There's a brief suggestion from Lewis about why the act really broke up, but the audience never gets to see that reason explored. What a letdown.

Matthau's casting is curious. At the time, he was 55. Burns was 80. Was there not another actor closer in age to Burns? Matthau gets tiresome to watch in this film with all his bluster. When his carrying on finally catches up to him, there's an extended scene while he and Ben wait for help. We're supposed to feel sorry for the old guy. I was frustrated.

Based on Neil Simon's play, The Sunshine Boys does offer a steady stream of good one-liners and several very funny lines. But it's not enough. The film's slow pace often tests the viewer's patience. Most scenes feel like set pieces for Willy to get angry about something. There are shades of an earlier Simon work, The Odd Couple, in this film too. Al is well-dressed and neat. Willy is a loud slob. Oscar and Felix, anyone?

There are some nice cameos from Phyllis Diller and Steve Allen. Burns won an Oscar for his work in this film. Matthau would make more "old men" movies in another 20 years with efforts such as Out to Sea and Grumpy Old Men. The Sunshine Boys brought Burns back to the big screen with several Oh, God films and 18 Again following.

RATING: 7/10

FUN FACTS: Director Herbert Ross also directed other Neil Simon efforts such as I Ought to Be in Pictures and California Suite.

Burs was Mr. Kite in the film Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Howard Hesseman, who would star in television comedy WKRP a few years later, is the first director to get frustrated by Willy Clark in The Sunshine Boys.

Santos Morales, who appears as a desk clerk in The Sunshine Boys, died in July 2012. His other credits include Back to School and The Lonely Guy.

In his memoirs, Rewrites, Simon describes how he almost shelved The Sunshine Boys, at least for a few years.

"I was stuck on it and saw it heading for the 'dead new play' folder not to be heard from again for six years or more.' Director Mike Nichols talked to Simon a week later and asked him if he was working on anything. Simon told him about The Sunshine Boys.

Nichols' response? "It's wonderful. I love it. You must finish it."

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