Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

THE OUT-OF-TOWNERS (1999)  *  

Directed by Sam Weisman. Written by Marc Lawrence, based on the screenplay by Neil Simon. Photography, John Bailey. Editing, Kent Beyda. Production design, Ken Adam. Music, Marc Shaiman. Produced by Robert Cort, David Madden, Robert Evans, Teri Schwartz. Cast: Steve Martin (Henry Clark), Goldie Hawn (Nancy Clark), John Cleese (Mr. Mersault), Oliver Hudson (Alan Clark), Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (himself), et al. A Paramount release. 91 minutes. PG-13

There was a time when it was chic and trendy to dismiss the work of Neil Simon. I hope that this particular snobbery exists no longer. The man's output is prodigious, his talent is superior, and his duds are minimal. At their best, movies scripted by Simon have resulted in great comedies or mixed-genre films. At their non-best, among the least well received -- even though it does have its partisans--- is The Out-of-Towners (1970) directed by Arthur Hiller.

Neil Simon's script is his most unpleasant.  Ohio executive Jack Lemmon and wife Sandy Dennis go on a business trip to New York. Everything goes badly from the start and escalates without respite. Most of these frustrations, taken singly or in smaller installments, are all too familiar -- but here they are so mercilessly and artificially piled up that they reach a level of cruelty. And a major flaw is that the couple is dislikable, with Lemmon a  grating idiot, from the opening scene on. In this black humor however are some quite entertaining parts which would make me give the picture a sadomasochistic grade of  C.

Still, I see no reason for a remake of this item, especially the way it is handled by heavy-handed direction and a bad script that's not Simon's but based on the old Simon scenario. All my comments on the 1970 opus apply to the 1999 edition, except that now the couple is no longer dislikable. They are merely indifferent and without personality.

This time, the Ohioans George and Gwen Kellerman have been more WASPishly rebaptized Henry and Nancy Clark, married for 27 years. Their daughter has gone East, to school then to miscellaneous problems. The lachrymose parents are putting son Alan on the plane to Europe. The nest is empty. Henry, an adman, is about to leave for a job interview in New York City, but what he hasn't told Nancy is that he's been fired from his present position.

He boards his plane... and guess who comes in minutes later? Yes, Nancy, who's decided to come along and who makes a most idiotic appearance. (I'll spare you details). This is the start of an odyssey for the Clarks. The plane has to land in Boston, their luggage is lost, they miss the train to NYC, hire a talking car (sic), mess up directions, crash into a fish market. Next, they get robbed in the Big Apple. The misadventures of the moneyless and hungry Clarks hit an endless series of strident lows which include suspicious people, an S & M hooker, a ferocious Rottweiler, a sex-therapy meeting in a church, a ride in a holdup getaway taxi, a night spent alfresco in Central Park where Henry gets booked by cops for indecent exposure, and more and more. And yet more.

There is a sort of anchoring point. It is the hotel where the reservation were made. It is lorded over by Manager John Cleese, fawning, flattering, priggish, imperial, bossy, haughty, and unbearably rude once he finds out that Henry's hidden emergency credit card has been maxed out (by their daughter). The hotel is revisited later in ways impossible to sum up.

It's not funny. Viewers who travel a lot could identify with some of the journey's mishaps  but their outrageous accumulation here is neither surreal (as in a Laurel and Hardy movie) nor real. If you got involved in this film and its protagonists you might factually feel pain -- which, in any case is a no-no in farces where you have to keep your distance and laugh in the knowledge that all this couldn't really be. But  this movie loses you on both sides. You don't get involved and you don't get amused. Just bored by this incessant overkill.

Much of this is tasteless, crude and coarse. When the couple sneaks into the hotel bar so as to fill up on freebie snacks, and Goldie Hawn is approached by a horny traveler, the way she plays along is unlikely, tacky and unpleasant, as it what follows.

But I'll say this much for Goldie. She's still cute. Never a classic looker, she's wondrously  youthful at  54, exactly the same age as Steve Martin's. Her secret is between her and her doctors, but the result is amazing. She was, by the way, in Seems Like Old Times, another Simon movie, while Martin starred in The Lonely Guy, also directed by Hiller, the original The Out-of-Towners helmer.

The remake is as mechanical as can be. Its continuity is a mess. One example. After 24 hours of catastrophes, frustrations, and their longest night ever, the couple should by all rights smell to high heaven, look unkempt, filthy, dishevelled. Not so, especially Goldie who is still nicely coifed and in pressed clothes.

For many viewers critical of the picture, the saving grace will be John Cleese as Mr. Meursault. Not for me. The overkill extends to his character which is overloaded, including the fact that Cleese is a crypto-transvestite, another mechanical gimmick to allow Goldie to blackmail him. Cleese is patterned, with blinding obviousness, after his Basil Fawlty  in the superb British TV series Fawlty Towers. But that was then (1975-79) and this now.  On television he was the spoof of an irascible hotel owner. Here he too is on automatic drive as he spoofs a spoof, something that almost never works.

The few onscreen minutes, at the start, of newcomer Oliver Hudson (as Alan Clark, the son) are nice and show promise.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel