In The Prisoner Of Second Avenue, one of two 1975 adaptations of his work now making their debut on DVD, playwright Neil Simon plays a high-stakes game of chicken with atypically dark subject matter. Unsurprisingly, Simon swerves first, retreating into shtick and sentimentality just when the film threatens to dig below the surface.
Set during a sweltering heat wave and a garbage strike, Melvin Fran's film stars Jack Lemmon as a jittery white-collar worker who begins to unravel when he's fired from his job and his apartment is burglarized. For its first half or so, the film convincingly, though not compellingly, gets inside the mind of an uptight suit enduring a profound existential crisis. A master at conveying WASPy despair, Lemmon seems willing and able to plumb the depths of upper-class ennui, which makes it all the more unfortunate when his character rapidly devolves into a cartoonish Crazy Guy routine. One moment, Lemmon is plausibly disintegrating; the next, he's obliviously waving a knife in the face of his terrified wife while ranting darkly about conspiracies. Though Simon admirably tries to stretch beyond his profitable niche, he ends up writing himself into a corner before eventually falling back on the lazy screenwriter's trick of employing an overtly symbolic act of personal growth rather than trying to illustrate that growth organically.
Where The Prisoner Of Second Avenue suffers from a fatal mismatch between writer and subject matter, Simon's The Sunshine Boys, as directed by Herbert Ross, benefits from a perfect synthesis of creator and subject. Lemmon's old partner Walter Matthau finds a much more inspired showcase as a cantankerous but down-and-out comedy legend who doesn't quite realize that his career and vaudeville are equally dead.
Long-suffering nephew, agent, and deft straight man Richard Benjamin secures Matthau a slot on a TV show devoted to the history of comedy, but only if he reunites with geriatric ex-partner George Burns, with whom he shares a love-hate relationship that tilts heavily toward hate. Simon clearly loves the film's show-biz milieu, and his affection is contagious. Burns stepped in for Jack Benny at the last minute, for his first film role in decades, and he walked away with both an Oscar and a major autumnal comeback, but Matthau's old coot carries the film, breathing life and humor into even the most predictable gags about senility. Even Simon's tendency toward replacing dialogue with zingers and one-liners ends up working in The Sunshine Boys' favor, as its geriatric leads are unable to separate their stage personas from their offstage personalities. Warm and funny, The Sunshine Boys is a loving tribute to a bygone era of comedy from a stubbornly old-fashioned writer who even 30 years ago was a bit of an anachronism himself.