Biloxi Blues

July 16, 2012

Biloxi Blues is the second film to be adapted from Neil Simon’s current Broadway trilogy of autobiographical plays. The first adaptation, Brighton Beach Memoirs, didn’t give much evidence to explain why these plays had been hailed as the finest and most personal of Simon’s career. It looked like the same-old-same-old from the king of the relentless one-liners.

In the wake of that film’s failure, somebody got smart. For Biloxi Blues, production values are up, the actor who created the character on Broadway is installed as Simon’s alter ego (replacing Brighton‘s Jonathan Silverman), and a top-line director, Mike Nichols, has been brought in.

The setting is an Army training camp in sweltering Biloxi, Miss., in 1945. Simon’s youthful self-portrait, Eugene Jerome (Matthew Broderick), finds himself surrounded by weird bunkmates (“It was hard to believe that these guys had mothers and fathers who were worried about them”) and an even weirder drill sergeant (Christopher Walken).

Simon has devised a number of small-scale adventures for Eugene, all designed to help him come of age; and all, according to the narration, true events from Simon’s own life. These include some animosity directed toward the two Jewish recruits, a homosexual incident, Eugene’s first serious crush (Penelope Ann Miller) at a USO dance, and, of course, Eugene’s loss of virginity, which happens at the hands of a pro (Park Overall).

The material itself is standard-issue, familiar service-comedy stuff. But Biloxi Blues is pretty easy to enjoy. Matthew Broderick provides an immediately likable center for the film, and he gives an unfussy performance, appropriately innocent for his age but sufficiently intelligent to suggest the budding writer.

And the barracks scenes are made strong by some good ensemble work, by Corey Parker as Eugene’s “fellow Jew,” a bookish malcontent; Casey Siemaszko as an amiable nonentity; Michael Dolan as a decent Irish kid; and Matt Mulhern and Marcus Flanagan as hulking, stereotypical soldiers. Walken, not surprisingly, manages to invest some original subtleties in the stock character of the demonic sergeant.

But the best thing Biloxi Blues has going for it is Mike Nichols, who directs with considerable care (although one should note that this nostalgic look at Army life makes an unlikely companion piece to Nichols’ caustic 1970 film of Catch-22). Nichols shoots a number of scenes in long, unbroken takes, which gives an authentic feeling to the ensemble barracks scenes, and allows the actors to stretch out and find their own rhythms.

And Nichols, unlike Simon, understands the power of silence. The film’s sweetest moment comes when Eugene dances with his new love at the USO club. After some banter, they shut up and let their eyes and their dancing do the talking, as “How High the Moon” plays on the hi-fi. A picture is worth a thousand Neil Simon rim shots.

First published in the Herald, March 26, 1988

Mise-en-scene wins out over formula writing; there are indeed shots in this film that create a real sense of suspension, somehow adding to the Africa-hot atmosphere. There is something sad about the trajectory from Heller to Simon, however.