Garbo Talks

February 5, 2020

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Garbo Talks is your basic New York Jewish comedy, just this side of the average Neil Simon picture. It’s got the usual heartwarming predicaments and the funny nebbish hero and the eccentric overbearing Mama.

Problem is, it’s not terribly amusing. The plotting is so formulaic and the outcome so expected that the film just plods along in a bland, inoffensive way.

Ron Silver, a bearded New York actor who has scored some very funny supporting roles, usually playing sleazy agents (he was the tennis­-playing studio boss in Best Friends), has his first lead role here. (He shaved off his beard for it, too.) Silver plays a milquetoast accountant with a wife(Carrie Fisher) who wants to move to California, and a mother (Anne Bancroft) who regularly gets herself thrown into jail for supporting activist causes.

The story slips into gear when Bancroft comes down with a bad case of Hollywood terminal disease, and decides she has a last wish. She’s adored Greta Garbo all her life. So she wants to meet the ultra-reclusive movie star, who keeps an Upper East Side apartment in Manhattan, before she dies.

Silver is inspired to throw off his cloak of nerdiness once and for all. Finding Garbo and somehow convincing her to meet his mom – becomes his great personal test.

It also becomes the basis for the film’s slapstick. Silver goes through a series of humiliating schemes to get close to the star. He takes an afternoon job as a delivery boy for a food store so he can take veggies up to her apartment. Doesn’t quite work – he gets discovered at the kitchen entrance and booted out.

He also encounters a gallery of Big Apple weirdos: a broken-down photographer (Howard Da Silva) wbo once took pictures of Garbo from 50 feet; an aging character actress (Hermione Gingold) who used to play opposite Garbo; a traveler (Tony-­winning playwright Harvey Fierstein) to Fire Island, who lends Silver a pair of fuschia sweat pants after an accident with a friendly dog.

These are stock types, and there’s not much new in the playing out of the various wild cards. Silver does OK, in a part that would have been played by Elliott Gould or Richard Benjamin 15 years ago.

The director, Sidney Lumet, is as much to blame as anyone for the flatness of the proceedings. Lumet has a fairly high profile among Establishment critics – his movies (Network, The Verdict, Daniel, among many others) often get Oscar nominations, because he loves tackling the serious topics.

But every once in a while he gets it into his head that he wants to make a comedy. Anybody out there remember Just Tell Me What You Want? Didn’t think so. He doesn’t have a lively comic sense, and without a nimble telling, the light touch that the film needs seems as heavy as Greta Garbo’s sultry eyelids.

First published in the Herald, October 1984

That’s right – those Establishment critics, man. But this wasn’t one of Lumet’s bright spots, so there. Sort of interesting to recall a time when there were not only too many Neil Simon movies out there, but too many sub-Simon efforts. This I do not miss. (Also: a “food store”?)