Thursday, November 10, 2016

Retro Review: THE SUNSHINE BOYS (1975)

Welcome to another installment of RETRO REVIEW, where we take a look at films made before the year 2000. Today we review the 1975 comedy THE SUNSHINE BOYS.

Howdy fellow film freaks, Robert here. The Sunshine Boys, based on the play by Neil Simon, is the story of an attempt to reunite one of the greatest (fictional) comedy acts of all time for one last hurrah. Once upon a time, in the (now ancient) days of Vaudeville, there were few acts bigger than Al Lewis and Willie Clark, also known as The Sunshine Boys. They were a household name, appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show six times (not counting reruns). They were kings of comedy for decades.

Then, after 43 years of merriment, Al Lewis called it a career. The Sunshine Boys were no more, and the uncaring world moved on.

The opening of the film is like the middle of a "Where Are They Now?" story; you see the depths to which Willie Clark (Walter Matthau) has sunk in his obscurity, auditioning for commercials and other small-time work, before really learning who he is. And those years of obscurity haven't been kind to him. Clark, now a bitter and combative old man as only Walter Matthau could play the role, lives alone in a rat-hole apartment, and cares nothing for anything. The only reason he gets auditions for commercials is because of the effort of his long-suffering nephew, Ben, auditions Willie never seems to win.

Then Ben gets word that ABC wants to do a special retrospective on the history of entertainment, including a segment on Vaudeville. They want Lewis and Clark to reunite for one final performance of their most famous routine. Ben is all for it; Willie is strongly against it, and has a whole litany of reasons why Al Lewis (George Burns) was the worst partner ever to work with. But when asked why he worked with Lewis for almost have a century if the man was so terrible, Clark reveals his great respect for the man: "Because he was the best, that's why ... No one could time a joke the way he could time a joke." This idea that it's possible to respect someone you don't personally like is a concept Matthau would revisit in more explicit terms in the 1981 drama First Monday in October. But I digress. That the pair will reunite for this final curtain call is not the story of the film. The story is the days leading up to that final performance.

The first thing to be aware of about The Sunshine Boys is that it is about Vaudeville, or at least flavored with a distinct nostalgia for those days. I mention this because, while Vaudeville was many things, what we would call "tolerant" isn't one of them. The film opens with snippets of footage of Vaudeville acts, and yes, blackface does make an appearance. Neither are women portrayed in the most flattering light. Lewis and Clark's greatest routine is a sketch set in a doctor's office. So of course the act involves a nurse, a busty blonde bimbo type played by one Lee Meredith. Meredith never saw much success as an actress (according to IMDB she hasn't acted since 1992), but she absolutely crushes it in this role, even though it lasts for all of one scene. My point here is this: I get that this movie has some stuff that wouldn't play in Peoria today, to put it mildly. But this movie is 40 years old, and Vaudeville is older still. Getting mad about this stuff now won't change anything.

The big draw of The Sunshine Boys is the casting of real-life comedy legend George Burns as Al Lewis. Burns had not appeared on-camera in a motion picture since 1939's Honolulu, and this role won him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Fun factoids aside, I don't think George Burns and Walter Matthau make that great of a comedy team. Maybe I'm spoiled by the many great movies Matthau appeared in alongside Jack Lemmon, but George Burns doesn't seem able to match Matthau's energy.

That being said, the film is still at its best when the two are together. The odd thing to notice about the opening of The Sunshine Boys is that retirement has taken its toll on both Clark and Lewis. Why Willie Clark harasses and exasperates his nephew so is never made clear. Maybe he likes being difficult, or maybe he just cares so little he doesn't notice. When we meet Al Lewis, however, we notice that he's acting much the same way (repeating himself, not appearing to hear what's said to him). In his case, though, it appears to be a symptom of age more than anything. The film doesn't call attention to it, but the two regain a lot of vitality over the days they spend together. These two clearly share a special connection, though Willie needs Al Lewis far more than the reverse. And that's the core reason why Willie hates Al so much: Al chose to retire, Willie had retirement thrust upon him. With retirement comes obscurity, and obscurity means to be forgotten, something Willie is deeply afraid of.

The Sunshine Boys is slow to start, but it brings the laughs once it gets going. It's comedy is often straight, sometimes even deadpan, but it's another great performance by Walter Matthau, and a triumphant return by George Burns besides.

The Sunshine Boys is rated PG.

Robert's Score: 8/10

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