"So far I got poison ivy, got chewed up by gnats, laid down in manure, and your dog piddled all over my car. I haven't really had a lot of time for rural ecstasy."—Mel (Jack Lemmon)
In Neil Simon's screen adaptation of his hit stage play, Jack Lemmon is a neurotic New Yorker who has difficulty adjusting to life after losing his job. Backed by a strong script and an even stronger cast, The Prisoner of Second Avenue is a criminally underrated Neil Simon comedy that will hopefully win more fans with this DVD release.
Facts of the Case
Things aren't going very well for Mel Edison (Jack Lemmon, Some Like it Hot, The Apartment). The stink of garbage, obnoxious neighbors, a broken air conditioner, and chronic indigestion are enough to keep him up most nights, but things are about to get a whole lot worse. After losing his job of over 20 years, only to come home to a burglarized apartment, Mel's wife Edna (Anne Bancroft, The Graduate, The Miracle Worker) is convinced he's having a nervous breakdown.
To escape hectic New York life, Mel visit his brother Harry (Gene Saks, The One and Only) in the country, but his neurosis only gets worse. As their relationship deteriorates under the strain, Edna is forced to take a job to help make ends meet. Rallying the remaining members of her husband's indifferent family, Edna tries everything to help Mel get better; or at least to return him to his usual, cranky, over-anxious self.
The Prisoner of Second Avenue marked Jack Lemmon's third starring role in a Neil Simon play adapted for the screen. The first two were near classics: The Odd Couple and The Out-of-Towners. Jack once again returns to the role of a tightly wound man that just can't seem to win. While the results aren't quite as celebrated or enjoyable, The Prisoner of Second Avenue is still a very classy comedy that frequently had me laughing out loud.
Actually, the plot of this film is reminiscent of The Out-of-Towners, in which Lemmon visits New York for a job interview and is subjected to all kinds of mishaps and indignities. Here, the situation is much the same, but Lemmon can't simply call it a day and go back home—he's already there. Almost all the action takes place in a cramped Manhattan apartment, giving screenwriter Simon and director Melvin Frank a chance to delve beneath the surface of the characters and ask the all-important question: Just what is it that makes people like the long-suffering Mel Edison get up every morning to face a cruel and uncaring world?
First and foremost, this is a comedy. The Prisoner of Second Avenue is full of cleverly written jokes, neurotic humor about the pace of living in New York that sometimes seems straight out of a Woody Allen film. Mel, though, has no romantic delusions about New York City, complaining about anything and everything that crosses his path. "I haven't had a real piece of bread in 30 years," he grumbles. "If I'd known, I would have saved some rolls when I was a kid."
Like most Neil Simon screenplays, this is a film that is made or broken on the strength of the actors' performances. Thankfully, both Jack Lemmon and Anne Bancroft are in top form as the put upon New York couple, delivering Simon's punch lines with impeccable timing. This is the kind of role Lemmon excels in, and he doesn't disappoint, whether plotting revenge on his neighbors or trying to figure out why the robbers stole his suits. Anne Bancroft brings humanity to her portrayal of Edna, Mel's decidedly unglamorous wife. This is not the kind of role she has become known for, but when the chips are down, she effortlessly proves her comic worth. Gene Saks, the director of The Odd Couple, also deserves special mention for his brilliant comic portrayal of Harry, the chandelier magnate who offers to show x-rays of his lungs to prove to Mel that country living is healthier (c'mon, he's got them in the house!). Even the bit parts are filled by notable actors. Look for M. Emmet Walsh, F. Murray Abraham, and Sylvester Stallone, in brief but memorable roles.
With such a high caliber of talent in front of and behind the camera, it's no surprise that The Prisoner of Second Avenue remains an enjoyable viewing experience after almost 30 years.
Not even Mel could complain about Warner's transfer on this release: sharp, with vibrant colors and very few artifacts. Considering the age of the film, this presentation of The Prisoner of Second Avenue looks better than it has any right to. Likewise, the Dolby 2.0 audio track is wholly appropriate for a dialogue-heavy film, and gets the job done admirably. The extras, however, are less than impressive. A five minute "making of" featurette offers only a few glimpses behind the scenes, focusing mostly on a few barely amusing outtakes. This promotional short has not aged well at all, and is subject to scratches, discoloration, and poor sound. Running eight minutes, an excerpt from Anne Bancroft's appearance on the Dinah! show contains precious little information about the film, and even stoops to repeating the same bloopers from the featurette. Rounding out this disappointing lot is the obligatory trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If there's any stumbling block in The Prisoner of Second Avenue, it's that Neil Simon's script takes a few risks that don't always pay off. Mel has a dark side, a distinct difference from Lemmon's other roles in Neil Simon scripted films. Here, he gets angry. Not flustered in a comedic way, but downright mean. There are several tense scenes in which an unemployed Mel hurls insults and accusations at his wife. These moments aren't meant to be funny, but can be confusing. Because we've already been laughing at Mel's frustration and paranoia reaching critical levels, these more serious confrontations catch you a little off guard. The Prisoner of Second Avenue is an admirable attempt by Simon to straddle both comedy and tragedy, but doesn't succeed every time.
A woefully underrated Neil Simon comedy, The Prisoner of Second Avenue is loaded with enjoyable performances and highly amusing dialogue. If you've ever been unemployed, and can laugh about it now, then you owe yourself at least a rental of this disc.
It is obvious to this Court that The Prisoner of Second Avenue was wrongfully accused and is to be released immediately. Furthermore, the grievous charges of overlapping extras against Warner are to be dropped, in lieu of its striking transfer of this film. Case dismissed!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Vintage "Making Of" Featurette
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