Of all the movies so far discussed here, this one is probably the least essential. It doesn’t contain a single original line, scene, or thought. It brings absolutely nothing to the table, other than an opportunity for talented actors to waste their time. Its drab, competent direction prevents it from even being bad in an interesting way, like Scenes From a Mall or King Lear.
Like 1994’s Don’t Drink The Water, this is a half-assed but inexplicably star-studded production of dated material dumped unceremoniously onto television. Don’t Drink The Water was a dusty relic, but it at least had the advantage of being new to most people. The Sunshine Boys has already been (a) a popular Tony-winning play (1972), (b) a classic Oscar-winning movie (1975) and (c) a television movie (1977). Now it’s another television movie.
The original play was written by the legendary Neil Simon, and he’s credited with personally adapting all three movie versions (including this one). If you’re going to regurgitate your own work that many times over, you could at least have the courtesy to mix it up a bit — The Sunshine Boys: The Musical or The Sunshine Boys In Space, or something. The world needs another straightforward remake The Sunshine Boys like it needs another faithful cover of Hallelujah.
Anyway, the plot bears an uncanny resemblance to The Odd Couple, another Neil Simon creation that’s been milked to death. Two entertainers (Peter Falk and Woody Allen) used to be a popular comic team, but times have changed and they’ve fallen out of favor. Plus, they hate each other. But guess what: a studio executive wants to get them back together, for some reason. Unless you’ve never seen a movie before, you can probably guess what will happen: They bicker at first, but eventually overcome their differences and reunite for One Last Show.
I didn’t go into the movie expecting much, but I held out hope that at least Peter Falk and Woody Allen would make a memorable comic team. That hope deflated five minutes or so into the movie. Given his recent passing, not to mention his deservedly beloved status, I feel badly even mentioning it, but there’s no getting around the big, ugly elephant in the room: Peter Falk’s performance in this movie is grating and awful.
Falk talks in a bizarre, irritating voice that’s a cross between Marlon Brando and Adam Sandler in The Waterboy. He also violates the golden rule of comedy acting — actors should not act as though they realize what they’re doing is funny, but Falk seems to think everything he says is hilarious. After each of his lame one-liners he looks like he’s trying desperately to suppress an outburst of the giggles.
Woody Allen is fine, I guess. By this point, you pretty much know what you’re gonna get with Allen. As with most of his performances in other peoples’ movies, he dials down the nervous energy and makes bigger, bolder shows of emotion. He definitely seems to try harder in movies that are not his own, so it’s too bad he’s never really found something worthy of the effort.
Falk and Allen together are supposed to propel the movie with their prickly chemistry, but there’s a slight problem: they don’t have any. The scenes of the two of them bickering do an unpleasantly good job at capturing the experience of watching two old, bitter men squabble about nothing.
The bigger problem is that the movie’s script is dated, routine, and unfunny. Do we really need yet another re-tread of the classic “comic team” (one is big and boorish, the other is small and jittery)? Laurel and Hardy made their first films in the 1920s, and this is a movie that has learned nothing in the decades of variation and innovation that have come since. Take a look at the quality of some of the jokes:
- “Yeah, he has tact — the kind you nail to the wall with a hammer!”
- “I got an offer from the Warner Brothers.”
“Good for you... which one?”
- “I got so much self-esteem I don’t have room in the apartment to put it anymore.”
- “Put your money where your mouth is!”
“But I can’t speak with a mouthful of quarters.”
Contrary to what you might assume, I did not pick and choose the worst of them, I just skipped around and picked the first ones I heard. There is literally nothing in this movie that is intentionally funny.
It does have a few unintentional laughs though, mostly from Neil Simon’s pathetic attempts at modernizing. For example: Woody Allen’s character is a Nintendo enthusiast. And Whoopi Goldberg has an embarrassing cameo as a sassy nurse who teaches Falk what “dissing” means. I was half-expecting a rapping dog with a backwards hat to show up.
The movie’s cultural references are also humiliatingly out-of-touch, which is a big problem for a movie that’s supposedly about show business. When contemplating a comeback, Falk says “Kids today are so quick. I hear Robin Williams does 23 jokes a second.” For an example of hot, young talent, the best Neil Simon can come up with is Robin Williams? Remember: this is 1996, when Williams was the 46-year-old star of Jumanji. Another example: “Arnold Schwarzenburger gets $15 million a picture, and his suits don’t even fit!” Ha... Schwarzenburger. Hilarious.
Apart from Falk and Allen, the only other significant role goes to Sarah Jessica Parker. She’s Falk’s niece, but she’s also a talent agent who’s been asked to get the two stars back together. She has the thankless task of finding all of Falk’s/Allen’s jokes to be HILARIOUS, when most people would just roll their eyes and awkwardly walk backwards out of the room. She’s not very convincing, but I don’t think that’s her fault.
Dramatically, the movie makes no sense. In the original Sunshine Boys, the two leads were vaudeville performers. This time they’re, well, who knows. The Wikipedia page says that they’re “two comedians from the early days of television,” which is about how much detail the movie itself gives. Neither are particularly funny or charming, so it’s hard to see what made them so popular in the first place, or why anyone wants them back so badly.
When we finally see the big, expensive project that the two of them have been lured into doing — by the head of Warner Bros. studios, no less — it’s astoundingly lame. It’s a movie in which Falk and Allen play, basically, Patch Adams — funny-hat-wearing clown-doctors who cheer up sick kids with zany antics. But their version, with its terrible jokes and shameless schmaltz, makes the actual Patch Adams look like Annie Hall.
Anyway, I could go on, but what’s the point? I have a feeling this is not a movie you’re on the fence about. If you have a desperate need to see a film version of The Sunshine Boys, well, guess what: they made one in 1975. I hear it’s pretty good.
- Woody Allen’s part was played by Sam Levene in the play’s first run, Lou Jacobi in the second run, George Burns in the first movie, and Lionel Stander in the second movie. Falk’s role was played by Jack Albertson, Jack Gilford, Walter Matthau, and Red Buttons.
- That means that two different times — with The Sunshine Boys and Don’t Drink the Water — Lou Jacobi had a role in a play, and Woody Allen played the same role in a TV movie version of said play.
- The original film version of Sunshine Boys was directed by Herbert Ross, who directed Allen in Play It Again, Sam.
- The original play was directed by Alan Arkin (who I didn’t realize directed plays) and was nominated for 3 Tony awards.
- This movie was made by Hallmark Entertainment in 1995, but didn’t actually make it on to television until December of 1997. In between, it was released internationally on DVD.
- For reasons I can’t even begin to comprehend, there have been three different German-language adaptations of The Sunshine Boys — in 1982, 1995 and 2001.