"You got moxie, kid!"
I have never been a huge fan of Neil Simon—particularly his autobiographical work. The schmaltz factor is generally too high for my liking. Lost in Yonkers, based on the award winning Broadway play, teeters on the edge of saccharine sweetness without ever going too far. Part family drama/comedy, part coming-of-age story, the film plays well to the Baby Boomers but will come across a tad sappy for the younger set. Columbia TriStar doesn't help its cause by offering up a less than stellar package.
Facts of the Case
Jay and Arty's mother has passed away, forcing them to live with Grandma (Irene Worth) while Dad (Jack Laufer) earns enough money to pay back a loan shark. Grandma is an old-world candy shop owner who doesn't like kids. I take that back. Grandma doesn't like anybody. To say she doesn't want the kids there would be an understatement. To the rescue comes Aunt Bella (Mercedes Ruehl), Dad's mentally challenged sister who lives with and cares for Grandma. This is really her story. While the boys scheme to raise money to help Dad, Bella dreams of starting her own life as a wife and mother. This dance continues until Uncle Louie (Richard Dreyfuss) shows up and turns everyone's life upside down.
Neil Simon is a very successful writer who has seen many of his stories brought to life on the big screen—The Odd Couple, Murder By Death, The Goodbye Girl, and Biloxi Blues just to name a few. This time out, under the direction of Martha Coolidge (Real Genius), we revisit Simon's youth in upstate New York during World War II. The focus here is on a highly dysfunctional family complete with a domineering German matriarch incapable of expressing her emotions, an emotionally distant son, an emotionally challenged daughter, a mentally challenged daughter, and a smart-ass gangster son. All of the children have long lived in fear of this woman, each suffering their own resulting psychoses. However, it is through the eyes of her unaffected grandchildren that we witness the coming together of these disparate threads. They are the long awaited catalysts—harbingers of change whose presence ultimately impacts all of their lives.
Simon and Coolidge do an exceptional job of positioning Bella as the center of this universe. She is like a flower trying so hard to bloom but never given the love and nourishment needed to do so. As a result, she is caught in a loop—doomed to repeat her lonely, tormented existence day after day. Despite it all, she never complains. Her childlike optimism and nature remains frozen in time, even as her physical form ages. However, the cycle is broken with the arrival of Jay and Arty. Now Bella has someone to look out for and defend from the tyranny of her mother. She is their champion, now able to express everything she was unable to say in her own defense, giving her the courage to make her own life decisions for the very first time.
As one might imagine, Mercedes Ruehl (The Fisher King) steals the movie as the woman-child Bella, recapturing the magic from her Tony award winning stage performance. Her infectious optimism is the beating heart of the film. Brad Stoll and Mike Damus as Jay and Arty represent the antithesis of Bella—worldly and cynical men in the bodies of young boys. The three play very well off each other, teaming up against Grandma, the evil overlord, played to wicked exception by the late Irene Worth (Deathtrap). A veteran stage actress, Ms. Worth, who won a Tony for originating the role of Grandma on Broadway, passed away last March. Even though Richard Dreyfuss is given top billing and is shown center stage in all the promotional material, his role as Uncle Louie only serves to forward the sub-plot for the boys. Fun, but not one of his more noteworthy performances. Interestingly enough, Kevin Spacey (The Usual Suspects) originated this role on Broadway. Second only to Mercedes Ruehl is the beautiful performance of David Strathairn. One of Hollywood's most underappreciated acting talents, his role as Bella's would-be betrothed is touching, award-worthy, and much too brief. In spite of the quality production values and fine performances, this film never really comes through with a payoff.
Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, Lost in Yonkers is yet another example of a fine catalog title dumped onto DVD without any extra attention. On the positive side, the 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is nearly pristine with only the rare fleck of dirt rearing its ugly head. The colors accurately represent the muted tones of the 1940s. Careful eyes may also detect some edge enhancement, but there is really nothing we can complain about. A little disappointment can be felt with the Dolby 2.0 audio track. Then again, this was originally a stage play and there is little in the way of background ambience that would require the 5.1 treatment, except for Elmer Bernstein's beautifully crafted score. Finally, only theatrical trailers are to be found in the extras column—Lost in Yonkers, A League of Their Own, and A Soldier's Story—all World War II period films, so at least there is a theme.
Talented writer, beautiful filmmaking, nice performances, but something's lacking. If you like Neil Simon, by all means go out and rent it. Otherwise, save your money.
This court finds Lost in Yonkers guilty of diluting the power of Neil Simon's original stage play, but commutes a harsh sentence in favor of probation. We strongly urge studio executives to use discretion and care in selecting films for DVD instead of trying to dump every catalog title in order to make a buck. This court now stands in recess.
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