Judge Bill Gibron wishes he were a rich American princess...err, prince. He meant prince.
Every father's daughter is a virgin.
While a guest at his cousin's country club, Neil Klugman (Richard Benjamin, Westworld, The Sunshine Boys) meets and falls instantly in lust with Brenda Patimkin (Ali MacGraw, Love Story, The Getaway) a member of one of the nouveau riche families of Westchester. After a couple of false starts, Neil and Brenda begin dating, and their relationship grows serious. Neil is not used to Brenda's needy, nutty personality, and she can't quite get a handle on his desire to waste away his life in a dead-end job (he works at the Public Library).
As soon as Brenda introduces Neil to her family, the trouble really starts. Patriarch Ben Patimkin (Jack Klugman, Quincy, The Odd Couple) thinks Ben is a loser, a lamentable reflection of the roots from which he has desperately tried to tear his family away. Brenda's mother flat-out hates her daughter's new boyfriend, finding him beneath this new class their family has achieved. Still, as the summer rolls on, Neil and Brenda fall deeper in love and begin having sex to express this closeness. When birth control becomes an issue, the couple's intimacy starts to slide. Then Brenda's brother gets married, and the wedding hints start flying toward eldest daughter Brenda. No one can see her with someone—i.e., Neil—so beneath her status. Neil starts to think his girlfriend feels the same way.
As college calls Brenda for the new term, their relationship is put to the true test. Will Neil and Brenda stay together? Or is there something about their shared ethnic heritage that will doom their happiness? For this class-crossed couple, it's time to say "hello" to the real world, and "Goodbye, Columbus" to the security of traditions—no matter how right they may be.
Positioned somewhere between a soggy social commentary and a spiffy sex satire, Goodbye, Columbus channels the Jewish experience through the '60s free love idealism to harvest an often half-baked take on tradition and rebellion. More than just the story of a spoiled Jewish American Princess and her summer fling with a poor boy from the Bronx, Goodbye, Columbus wants to discuss the elements of ethnicity, turning one's back on his or her past, and the pitfalls of sudden affluence. For the Patimkin family, wealth has brought about an uneasy sense of guilt, a weird way of dealing with their impoverished beginnings by living a lifestyle far too extravagant. For Neil Klugman, his faith is just a part of what he is, nothing to shy away from or deny. This clash of class distinctions makes up the majority of the insight in Goodbye, Columbus; it is hiding around the corner of practically every conversation between Neil and Brenda.
But physicality is also a big part of this film. Author Philip Roth (whose novella formed the basis for the story) is perhaps the most compelling modern comic author on the Semitic circumstance in present-day America, and he relies heavily on sex as a metaphor for freedom and fundamental interaction between people. But Roth also crosses that concept with the blame and shame associated with premarital promiscuity among adults by the Establishment. It's easy to argue that Goodbye, Columbus is a film about how free love and available intercourse ruins the budding relationship between a directionless young man and an overprivileged young lady, but there is more to the movie than this. Too bad it has to climb through so many clichéd '60s cinema contrivances to make its point.
There are other aspects of this movie that date themselves the minute they appear onscreen. Richard Benjamin, making his film debut, joins a long late '60s / early '70s tradition of awkward, unattractive Jewish men as romantic leads (hear that, Elliot Gould?). With someone as drop dead gorgeous (and knowing it too) as Ali MacGraw, you just sense this relationship is not ending well—or at least going where you think it will. The view of the elite and rich also reeks of a staid, slanderous sensibility. Rich boys are brainless boobs attached to their alma maters and their secret fraternal cliques. The gals are all superficial sex objects layered in slippery suntan oils and baking their exposed bodies in the sun like ripening leather. Psychedelic colors shriek from incredibly tacky design schemes, and the clothing is a combination of camp and couture. Director Larry Peerce also piles on the pop art poem motifs throughout the film, using far too many musical montages and scenes of our loving couple in romance mode, to confirm the attraction between the two. With camera in full frenetic mode, Peerce wanders in and among his actors, trying to find a place to settle in and capture some cinemagic. But just when you think he'll play it straight, along comes a feeding frenzy sequence at a wedding buffet that is supposed to suggest tactless self-satisfaction—but really looks like an outtake from The Benny Hill Show. Had the stylization been kept to a manageable minimum, and more of the truth behind Neil and Brenda's relationship been explored, Goodbye, Columbus could have been a classic coming-of-age story, peppered with the complexities of ethnicity and social status. Instead, it's a tad too cheeky for its own good.
Quite controversial for its time (because of the frank discussions of sex and subtle use of nudity), Goodbye, Columbus now plays like the blueprint for a few of a certain New York nebbish's "early, funny" films. Indeed, there will probably be several instances where you stop and say to yourself, "I don't remember that scene in Annie Hall." Woody Allen must have studied this film to crib a great many of Alvy and Annie's meals with Mom and Pop. From the simmering rage at the outsider dining in the white bread household, to the awfully odd brother who appears slightly out of step with reality (or in the case of Brenda's brother Chuck, his own sexuality), Woody's works recall incredibly similar sentiments. Perhaps it's part of the poor Jewish experience in America that makes this so. Maybe Allen's affinity for name-checking famous writers (Roth being one of them) helped in his homage. It is quite possible that Allen has never seen the film. Or is it that self-hating thing all over again?
Whatever it is, Goodbye, Columbus relishes the chance to explore the difference between accepting one's heritage and trying to hide it with nose jobs and expensive digs. Too bad we don't get more of this divergence. Neil's Bronx tale is underdeveloped, relying on standup comedy routines from Catskill classics to fill in the blanks. But even Brenda's world is less than fleshed-out. Goodbye, Columbus seems afraid to ridicule the newly affluent, inferring that as a part of the overall American dream, using money to distance yourself from your roots is understandable, if not necessarily commendable. It's a typical example of how Hollywood handled "sensitive" subjects—never pushing far enough. Goodbye, Columbus may not sizzle like The Graduate did two years before, but it is still a fairly good coming-of-age story.
Believing that barebones presentations bolster the bottom line, Goodbye, Columbus is offered in a frills-free package that tries to make up for the lack of treats with a great image and even better sound. Sadly, Paramount drops the dramatics on both accounts. Visually, the film looks fine, the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image really opening up director Peerce's panoramas. But the print is soft and even indistinct at times, blurring Ali MacGraw's features, or details in the background, quite often. Sonically, the dialogue is understandable and satisfactory. But there is very little music in Goodbye, Columbus, and when it is used, the Dolby Digital Stereo does it a complete disservice. You can barely hear the Association when they sing the title song (and two other tracks) for the film, and the Herb Alpert-meets-Burt Bacharach swinging-'60s cool-cat incidental music (complete with moaning trumpet fills) is mixed down far too low. Sometimes, it's almost inaudible. Paramount can argue that they've saved the space for improved technical specs. After watching and listening to Goodbye, Columbus, you'll question that claim.
If ever a movie is almost saved by its ending, it would be Goodbye, Columbus. Up until the moment Neil and Brenda meet in a seedy Boston hotel to discuss their future, you feel like you're one nebbish away from a bar mitzvah yourself. The arcane antics on top of obvious social criticism tend to draw you away from the real story at play. But once we understand what the entire summer fling was about, where Neil stands with Brenda, her family and his fate, Goodbye, Columbus finally comes together. Too bad the loose ends in between make the movie tough to fully tolerate and appreciate.
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