[box cover]

The Sunshine Boys

Herbert Ross's screen adaptation of Neil Simon's widely produced stage play The Sunshine Boys (1975) kicks off with a spirited orchestral rendition of "Make 'Em Laugh," something the film itself rarely manages to accomplish. "Make 'Em Wince" is more like it. Well regarded in its day, if only for featuring George Burns's first appearance on film since 1939's Honolulu (for which he would win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor), The Sunshine Boys has aged as poorly as most of Simon's mechanical set-up/punchline exercises. Concerning the improbable reuniting of the legendary vaudeville routine "Lewis and Clark" — which is quite a feat since the duo haven't spoken to each other for decades — Walter Matthau plays the blustery Willy Clark, whose still-abrasive personality is now exacerbated by his worsening senility, which makes him all but unemployable to the frustration of his devoted nephew and agent, Ben (Richard Benjamin). As Willy blows one audition after another, Ben is forced to do the unthinkable: He books "Lewis and Clark" on an upcoming television special devoted to the history of American comedy. Though Ben secures the involvement of the equally senile Al Lewis, given undeserving depth by Burns's straight-man professionalism, he's still faced with the seemingly insurmountable task of getting the two men to forgive old grudges and go on with the show one last time. The best Ben can do is strike an uneasy détente wherein the duo agree to trot out their old doctor's office routine, but just rehearsing the bit tears up old wounds. Part of what makes The Sunshine Boys such an unpleasant experience is that Willy's little more than a shrill bully, a jerk who abuses his nephew's kindness and browbeats his one-time friend for trivial offenses. Compounding this flaw is Matthau's high-decibel performance, which may be the nadir of a career with very few missteps. Of course, Matthau is just performing the role as written, so one supposes it could be argued that he's essentially nailing the part. Despite the film's general unpleasantness, Simon does contribute a few nice touches, like Willy's daily routine of reading Variety for the obituaries, or Al firing back during one of Willy's many tirades that he's "not giving any straight lines." But the picture is mostly a lumbering affair that goes from gratingly unfunny to gratingly manipulative when Willy's health fails. Finally, Willy's brush with death forces him to confront what a boor he's been his whole life, leading to a couple of hackneyed bedside heart-to-hearts with Ben and Al. It's all terribly unconvincing in the worst Neil Simon tradition, leading one to wonder how audiences ever fell for the claptrap in the first place. Warner presents The Sunshine Boys in a nice anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with solid Dolby Digital 1.0 audio. Extras include a spotty commentary by Richard Benjamin consisting mostly of the actor describing action as if he's watching the picture for the first time in years (which he probably is). Also on board is an amusing vintage promotional tool called "The Lion Roars Again" (17 min.), which was produced to herald a new era for MGM based on the predicted strength of Logan's Run, Sweet Revenge, That's Entertainment Part II, and The Sunshine Boys. Also on board is a screen test with Matthau and Jack Benny, who was originally cast in the role of Al. Unfortunately, there is no audio, which is a shame since it appears the two actors are riffing off-script. There's also a screen test with Phil Silvers, who was apparently considered for the role of Willy. Theatrical trailer, snap-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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