I may have mentioned this on here before (likely a dozen times), but I’m a sucker for a good romance. Most of them are awful, but when a good one slips through, it’s magic. I was trying to decide what movie to watch last night when I got home, and my French roommate’s North African friend is a big fan of classic American movies. I had one such film at home from Netflix (the other two are more modern, The Tree of Life and Moon) and since I was feeling in an especially sociable mood, I decided to watch something that everybody could watch (rather than him awkwardly sitting in our kitchen waiting for my French roommate to get back). That movie was Neil Simon’s The Goodbye Girl starring Martha Mason and Richard Dreyfuss (in an Oscar-winning performance that marked him as the youngest man to win Best Actor at the Oscars til Adrien Brody in The Pianist). While it had a rough beginning and a unfocused final act, The Goodbye Girl was an effortlessly charming movie with plenty of laughs and a comedic powerhouse of a performance from Richard Dreyfuss.
When middle aged New York ex-dancer and single mother Paula (Marsha Mason) is dumped by her boyfriend without warning, her life is turned completely upside down. Without informing Paula that he was leaving in the first place, her ex subleased her apartment to fellow actor Elliot (Richard Dreyfuss) essentially leaving Paula and her 10 year old daughter Lucy (Quinn Cummings) on the streets. When Elliot first tries to move in, Paula doesn’t want to give the apartment up and wants to fight so she and her daughter have a place to live. Thankfully, she and Elliot (who instantly dislike each other) come to a compromise where Elliot (who has the legal right to do whatever he wants) allows Paula and Lucy to live there until their original lease runs out. As these two clash over Elliot’s eccentricities (such as playing the guitar at 1 AM to help himself sleep or loudly meditating at 6 AM when he wakes), they also bond and beneath all of the bickering, there is an underlying romantic and sexual chemistry that is just waiting to burst.
This film came out the same year as Annie Hall, and I’d always wondered what was so special about Richard Dreyfuss’s performance that he could top Woody Allen that year. Well, I understand it now. While Richard Dreyfuss’s acting is the only area where The Goodbye Girl is at all superior to Annie Hall, that isn’t an insult against Richard Dreyfuss’s performance one bit. He was full of so much life and charisma. He had the whole neurotic, eccentric actor part down, but there was also an undeniable magnetism about him. He was a perpetual motion machine, and you couldn’t help but get caught up in his energy. For a character who was an inherently decent man with very few flaws (but many bizarre quirks), Richard Dreyfuss still enhanced the script by giving a three-dimensional nature to Elliot that may not have been there simply from Neil Simon’s words. Martha Mason was far less impressive as she veered back and forth from being wooden and unemotional (and largely unsympathetic) to almost cartoonishly over-the-top. Young Quinn Cummings deserved her Best Supporting Actress nomination as Lucy for one of the most precocious and mature performances from a young actress this side of Little Miss Sunshine orThe Piano.
The script for the film is warm and full of life, and it’s really a shame that I felt that the movie started dragging its feet to artificially draw out the final running time. It’s first 15 minutes or so did not paint the picture of the movie that this turned out to be and everyone should at least wait for Richard Dreyfuss to arrive before they start drawing conclusions on the film’s quality. In the beginning, there is far too much Paula, and a combination of Martha Mason’s over-acting and Paula’s generally annoying nature, the film doesn’t work as well. However, Neil Simon’s pitch-perfect ear for dialogue and the chemistry between characters simply explodes off the screen whenever Elliot and Paula are put together. This is the rare Neil Simon film that wasn’t based off of one his Broadway plays, but Neil Simon is obviously as adept at writing a screenplay as he is a stage script because when the film finally hits its groove, it keeps chugging along til the end. Whether it’s Elliot playing an overtly homosexual version of Richard III, Martha being mugged and Elliot nearly being murdered trying to get her purse back, or one of Elliot and Martha’s many fights in the apartment, the film has an air of sincerity and believability even when its inherent premise is so absurd. I don’t think there’s anyone in the world who would be as nice as Elliot considering how bitchy Martha was for the film’s first two acts.
The Goodbye Girl has a reputation as being sort of a chick flick, and I don’t understand that at all. It’s simply a timeless love story and comedy that anyone with a beating heart can enjoy. Even though I thought the ending took way too long to resolve, I still spent the last 20 minutes of the film grinning like an idiot because the emotional payoff of the film worked so well, and it didn’t feel cheap or disingenuous. It made sense within the context of the story. If you liked movies like Annie Hall or any of Neil Simon’s plays like The Odd Couple or Biloxi Blues, go ahead and watch The Goodbye Girl. It will make you laugh; it might even make you cry. It will certainly make sure you have a good evening.
Final Score: B+