May 15, 2019

Starring Jack Lemmon, Anne Bancroft, Gene Saks, Elizabeth Wilson, Florence Stanley, Maxine Stuart, Sylvester Stallone, M. Emmet Walsh, F. Murray Abraham. Directed by Melvin Frank. (1975/98 min).
On Blu-ray from

Review by Mr. Paws😸

Unless your name is Stephen King, writers generally don’t have much marquee value these days. Sure, your book might be the talk of Hollywood, but you are just another name among the credits. And as far as screenwriters go, forget about it. More often than not, your lowly status means you’re sharing credit with a guy hired to rewrite your hard work.

It wasn’t always this way. In the '60s & '70s, Neil Simon was an inescapable brand name on both Broadway and the screen. Prolific and popular, his name was featured above a film’s title right along with its stars, maybe because people generally knew what to expect: Congenial, character-driven comedy that may have never been all that deep, but was usually perceptive, intelligent and occasionally uproarious. Kind of like Woody Allen without the neurosis.

1975’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue – adapted from his own play – is a prime example of vintage Simon, perhaps just a tad bleaker than his usual oeuvre. Jack Lemmon is in typically fine form as Mel Edison, a tightly-wound, middle-aged New Yorker living in a cramped apartment with his beleaguered wife, Edna (Anne Bancroft). He’s miserable even before he loses his job and their place is robbed. Out of work and feeling useless, Mel wallows in resentment and self-pity, which puts a strain on the marriage, especially after Edna manages to find work. Soon after, he suffers a nervous breakdown.

Jack spots Walter Matthau.
The film isn’t nearly as downbeat and depressing as the plot suggests. It’s frequently very funny, even during Mel’s paranoia-fueled meltdown. The comic highlight, however, has to be Mel’s run-in with a suspected mugger (a very young Sylvester Stallone). Lemmon’s played high-strung characters plenty of times, so he’s not really stretching here. But since he’s so adept at it, who cares? Bancroft is an amusing foil, no small task considering much of her performance is reactionary.

Like most of Neil Simon’s work from the ‘70s, The Prisoner of Second Avenue isn’t a timeless classic. But despite the dreary narrative underpinnings, it’s an affably enjoyable, loosely structured film with a lot of laughs and fun performances by the entire cast (including a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him appearance by F. Murray Abraham as a cab driver). And if nothing else, it might make you feel better about your own problems.

"DINAH!” - Anne Bancroft appears on the popular 70s’ talk show, schmoozing it up with Dinah Shore. I forgot how bad afternoon talk shows really were.

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