Simon and Dreyfuss make a real mess out of 'Lost in Yonkers'

May 14, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

He's such a pleasant man, so affable and decent and committed. Who could suspect that under Neil Simon's breast there beats the heart of a monster, a cunning, hopelessly vulgar comedio-maniac who breaks out and wreaks havoc? Call them two men; call them Dr. Simon and Mr. Neil.

Between them, these two gentlemen manage to ruin "Lost in Yonkers" -- the first, by not fighting hard enough, the second by fighting too hard.

Dr. Simon is a physician of the heart, profoundly interested in dysfunctional families, particularly his own, and the pain they seem to generate like vapors. Dr. Simon is tough and honest and unafraid to look at the dark heart of things. Dr. Simon is interesting.

But . . . Mr. Neil won't let this good man do his humble deeds. No, never. Mr. Neil has got to infuse the crass schmaltz of show biz, the vulgar squawks of shtick, the endless, almost sociopathic impulse to turn every line into a joke, every character into a cartoon on Dr. Simon's work, and the result is a movie that seems to be written scene by alternating scene by the two of them.

As it breaks down, this means that Dr. Simon has written the wonderful parts of "Lost in Yonkers," about an almost sociopathically cold German-Jewish matriarch who cannot bring herself to feel for her children or her grandchildren and how her retarded daughter and two of her grandsons struggle with her coldness and attempt to come to terms with it.

Irene Worth is literally astonishing as proud old Grandma Kurnitz, whose compassion was burned out of her when she buried two of her children and whose hard life has only taught the double-matrix lesson of responsibility and numbness. She runs a candy store in Yonkers, N.Y., during World War II with the cold and relentless precision of a manufacturer of microscopes, a tyrant queen to all and a mother from hell.

Dr. Simon has a professional craftsman's instincts for setups. In this one, mama's widowed son, wracked by financial problems, has to go on the road, so he reluctantly turns to his old and hated mother to care for his two boys, Jay and Arty (Brad Stall and Mike Damus). Thus we watch the goings-on in the household through their fascinated, terrified eyes.

Dr. Simon still has a brilliant ear for relationships and co-dependencies, the latticework of emotions that both bind and drive apart this tortured agglomeration.

The true victim is Grandma's daughter Bella, played with a brilliant mix of naivete and heart by Mercedes Ruehl. The doctor never tells us exactly what her problem is, but she functions at a very low level and desperately wants to escape. Grandma, of course, cannot allow that -- her need to tyrannize the helpless person that she has created is too strong. This drama -- the need for freedom and selfhood waged against a totalitarian parent -- is the stuff of great heroism and incredible emotion.

But it's as if a nasty little dybbuk perches on Dr. Simon's shoulder and begins to whisper, "It isn't funny enough, bubeleh. Make it funny. You worked for Sid Caesar, remember? Turn it into 'Your Show of Shows.' " And so Mr. Neil bursts from Dr. Simon's brow.

The comic spirit is represented by an over-the-top Richard Dreyfuss playing one of mama's other sons, a vague gangster called "Uncle Louie" from the planet of the Sheldon Leonard imitators. Sheldon Leonard was a movie tough guy of the '30s and '40s, the original dem, dose and dese guy, and it's as if Dreyfuss wants to turn the movie into a one-man Sheldon Leonard film festival. What is this guy doing in this movie?

His Louie is a wisecracking, corner-of-the-mouth talking showboat who carries a gun and wears loud ties. He's being hunted by two other thugs for the contents of a mysterious "black bag," a primitive device that Mr. Neil doesn't even bother to explain.

Guess what? Funny he's not. Not even my little toe laughed. Uncle Louie doesn't relate to any one else in the family. It seems incredible that he could have issued from Grandma's loins. In any event, Dreyfuss' cartoon performance, essentially a ploy to pad out what must have been a dreary second act, all but destroys the film.

And what was director Martha Coolidge doing while Dreyfuss was eating the carpet and the scenery and the caterer's truck and half of the Cincinnati that stands in for Yonkers? She appears to have devoted herself to the subtler and more resonant portions of the story, as if she'd given up on her braying movie star. In all, "Lost in Yonkers" is lost in no place.

"Lost in Yonkers"

Starring Richard Dreyfuss and Irene Worth

Directed by Martha Coolidge

Released by Columbia

Rated PG

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