Director: Herbert Ross
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Is comedy dead as an American film genre? Some people might think I’m being facetious, but for me, 2000’s Zoolander was my high watermark for modern comedies, and even that film was showing the signs that I believe have proven near fatal to American comedies. In general, the kind of wit that is based in human experience and cultural literacy and not in unexpected outrageousness, that is, OMG comedy that makes one feel uneasy rather than carefree, is a highly endangered species. Sadly, too, the wonderful comedians who were in vaudeville or were mentored by vaudevillians are dead or retired. Whenever I see a film that taps into the rich tradition of vaudeville entertainment, it is a sad reminder of a much richer world of entertainment that will never come again.
The Sunshine Boys is both a paean to the vaudeville era and a revival of the humor that entertained generations of Americans during the 20th century. Neil Simon, the author of the play on which the film is based, was born in 1927, near the end of the vaudeville era, when the actors and dancers, singers and specialty performers who trod the boards in vaudeville houses across the country were either retiring or trying to transition into motion pictures and radio. Despite the decline of vaudeville on the stage, movies were still liberally seasoned with the stories and acts of the era. For example, a veritable history of vaudeville can be found in the films of James Cagney, from the depiction of the prologue business that provided live entertainment in between movie showings in Footlight Parade (1933) to the career of the ultimate showman, George M. Cohan, in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). In the latter film, there is a reference to an acrobat act called Lewis and Clark; I wonder whether Simon might have remembered that reference when he christened the comedy team of Al Lewis and Willy Clark, the title characters of The Sunshine Boys.
For me, Neil Simon tends a bit to the sentimental and superficial, but The Sunshine Boys is neither. Willy Clark (Walter Matthau) is a demanding, unhappy man who refuses to acknowledge his failing memory or the herculean efforts of his nephew-manager Ben (Richard Benjamin) to get him work. The opening sequence shows a nervous Ben waiting for Willy to show up for an audition for a Frumpy’s potato chip commercial. On his way to the audition, Willy zigs when he should have zagged, and winds up venting his spleen to an auto mechanic (F. Murray Abraham) at the address he has mistaken for the right one. When he realizes his mistake, he heads out, again in the wrong direction, only to be corrected by the mechanic. He gets a chance to read for the commercial well after the last minute due to Ben’s persistence, but forgets his lines and insults the director (Howard Hesseman) and the product. Matthau’s air of entitled irritation sets the tone perfectly for his crucial confrontation with his old partner Al Lewis (George Burns), which comes about when Ben secures a major television appearance for Willy, but only if he and Al perform their famous doctor routine as part of a retrospective of American comedy.
Simon retreads his Odd Couple theme, with Willy a perfect slob and Al, his orderly, slightly prissy opposite. When he learns Al will be at his apartment in a matter of minutes, Willy hastily tries to clean up or cover over the dirty dishes, cast-off clothes, and other debris—a scene we can imagine happening many times over the course of their 43 years as a team. Burns, however, doesn’t play Al as neurotically tidy as Felix Unger was. He has the understated, disapproving Jewish mother down pat as he indicates his distaste with a terse “you live like this?” and a quiet, dismayed look around the room. Willy is much more vocal about his hatred of Al’s sprayed speech and finger jabs. The contrast between the emotionally volatile Willy and the maddeningly even-keeled Al is a formula that has worked beautifully for comedy teams through the ages—just consider how George Burns’ straight-man routine set off his wife Gracie Allen’s ditzy comedy perfectly—but highlights how difficult it can be to mesh such differing temperaments.
The rehearsal for the television show is a fascinating and surprisingly intense scene. Al and Willy don some funny wigs, make-up, and costumes and perform the routine. Full of corny jokes and a blonde bombshell of a nurse (Lee Meredith) as the butt of sexist and sexual gags, the doctor routine is nonetheless wildly entertaining and enthralling. These two showmen have the timing of a fine Swiss watch and somehow make the material feel fresh and involving. When the routine eventually blows up before the finish as Willy attacks Al, his irritation with Al’s spitting and finger poking past reason, I was heartbroken. The magic stopped, with a crucial moment of table-turning—Al broke Willy’s heart by quitting the act abruptly without a word—evening the score between the two men. Ross’ camerawork, getting close to the actors as the tension mounts, forms a satisfying climax to a symphony of bickering.
In general, Ross does a remarkable job of opening this play up for the screen, choosing locations and images that amuse as much as the snappy dialogue. The opening shot shows the fabled Palace Theatre, the goal of every vaudevillian, fronted by a statue of the legendary George M. Cohan with a pigeon perched on his head. Even just watching one of the boats people used to drive crossing a bridge from New Jersey to New York, with Burn’s disembodied voice whining along with the wheels of the car, was visual hilarity. Ross’ fluid camera works as well in elevators and offices as it does on the streets of Manhattan.
It is hard to fault the work of Burns and Matthau, both brilliant comic actors. Nonetheless, the much-younger Matthau—54 to Burns’ 80 years—could not suppress his physical vigor and seemed a mismatch for Burns. Watching his gangly form smoothly chasing a slow and stiff Burns around a couch is very funny, but highlights the degree to which Matthau does not play older than his years. Yes, he is great at sneaking cigars and eating the salty foods his doctor warned him against, but the infirmities of old age never really come from the bone.
Richard Benjamin is a bit of the unsung hero of this film, just as he is with his fictional uncle. His work as a go-between, however, is crucial to humanizing Willy and keeping him in contact with the world around him. He clearly loves and admires his uncle, and is proud of the legacy of Lewis and Clark. Willy has not adjusted to being an old man, nor has he moved with the times. He claims to be more in touch than Al, who lives with his daughter in New Jersey (“I see everything that’s going on in the world. Look! I see old people, I see young people, nice people, bad people. I see hold-ups! I see drug addicts! Ambulances! Car crashes! Jumpers from buildings! I see everything!”), but, in fact, he has withdrawn. Benjamin hits all the right notes as the comic scapegoat for Willy, but he also brings an emotional heart to the relationship that gives us a reason to care.
One thing vaudevillians could do that today’s comic talents seem unable to grasp is take a performance to its proper conclusion. Instead of starting a joke and developing it, modern comedies tend to flounder and spin out of control. The Sunshine Boys shows how even the most time-worn material can be spun gold in the hands of veteran entertainers who understand how to tell a story—beginning, middle, and end.