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USA 1975
Directed by
Herbert Ross
111 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars

The Sunshine Boys

For 47 years Al Lewis (George Burns) and Willy Clark (Walter Matthau) were one of the most successful of all vaudeville comedy teams but after an acrimonious split it's been 12 years since they actually spoke to each other off the stage. Now, via Al’s nephew, Ben (Richard Benjamin), they get an offer to appear in a TV special about the history of comedy.  Both would like a taste of the good old days but can they put aside their differences long enough to pull it off?

I can imagine Neil Simon's comedy being a hoot on the stage, which was its original home, but on screen, at least under Herbert Ross’s hand, it’s a tedious affair, the string of very Jewish gags being notionally amusing but unspooling with a remarkable lack of conviction.  The problem is not Matthau and Burns.. The problem is one of tone.

The Sunshine Boys is a comedy but underlying it are the themes of aging, loneliness and life's disappointment. Ross plays the former aspect well but doesn't manage to integrate the more serious aspects satisfactorily, The characters are too contrived to be credible (why, we wonder, would Willy’s nephew visit his abrasive, if not downright abusive, uncle every week, let alone invite him to come live with him and his family) and their ceaseless bantering (and Al's pretend senility) too mono-dimensional to reflect the relationship of two grown men (the depth of the relationship is hinted at when they rehearse their cheesy old comedy routine).  

On the stage these considerations could be readily-enough set aside by the forward momentum of performance but onscreen we need more than a lot of one-liners to stay with the characters. Late in the film when Ben confronts Willy with his options after a heart attack  Simon does strike one note of much-needed pathos but it is not enough to sustain the entire film.

In what really was a sentimental vote, the 80 year-old one-time vaudevillean Burns won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar whilst Matthau was nominated for Best Actor but lost to Jack Nicholson for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.




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