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.

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Heartburn

June 9, 2011

The last time Mike Nichols and Meryl Streep got together at the movies, the result was Silkwood, perhaps Nichols’ most casually assured film and definitely Streep’s loosest performance. It makes perfect sense that Nichols should direct Streep in her first comic role—and that she should pull it off quite effortlessly.

Actually, Heartburn is not your average romantic comedy—it’s more in the bittersweet vein of Woody Allen’s Manhattan love stories. But that still means Streep gets to engage in more funny business than she ever has—with considerable help from Jack Nicholson, the ideal actor to bring out her playful streak.

Heartburn is based on Nora Ephron’s best-selling novel about a New York magazine writer (Streep) who marries a Washington Post columnist (Nicholson), a fellow who turns out to be less than reliable in the fidelity department. Just before they’re to have their second baby, Streep finds out that her husband has been having an affair—a discovery that sends her into a crisis of faith and indecision.

That’s the skeleton of the plot; the film itself is full of wandering incidents in the lives of this couple and their friends. Ephron’s screenplay (she also scripted Silkwood) sketches the sorts of little behavioral scenes that Nichols excels at capturing: the pre-wedding sequence, when Streep refuses to leave her room and has to be coaxed out by a variety of wedding guests; a picnic during which the fate of all the unmatched socks in the world is debated; and the news of Streep’s first pregnancy, which is accompanied by the couple singing all the songs they can think of with the word “baby” in the title, their mouths full of pizza.

All of these scenes involve food, and eating is the central metaphor here: the consumption of food and the consumption of love. The motif builds so that the climax—Streep’s final gesture of defiance—is much, shall we say, tastier than it otherwise would have been.

While Ephron’s dialogue is keen and Nichols’ direction is supportive, there’s a sense of meandering in the film, especially in the second hour, when Nicholson drifts into the background. The film is told completely from Streep’s point of view, and Nicholson’s behavior is largely inexplicable.

Nicholson has his inimitable charm, although Nichols perhaps allows him to overmug in a couple of scenes (however, Nicholson does bring the house down with his singing in the baby-song scene).

The supporting actors are a fine, mixed bunch, although none of them seem to get enough on-screen time. Richard Masur and Stockard Channing play the couple’s best friends; Jeff Daniels (Purple Rose of Cairo) is Streep’s editor; Steven Hill has a nice scene as Streep’s father (“You want monogamy? Marry a swan.”); Catherine O’Hara, formerly of “SCTV,” plays a gossip (“Thelma Rice had her legs waxed. For the first time. Need I say more?”); and director Milos Forman (Amadeus) has a tiny role in which he gives a memorably accented reading to a line I can’t repeat here.

Ephron’s novel was reportedly a transparent fictionalization of her marriage to and divorce from Washington Post writer Carl Bernstein. This means that Bernstein has now been played by two of America’s better actors: Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men and Jack Nicholson here. The guy may be unfaithful and a bit of a cad, but seems to be doing something right.

First published in the Herald, July, 1986

The filmography of Mike Nichols is a truly unusual subject. Heartburn sounds like a project that should have been a Nichols classic, especially with that lead casting, but it’s not particularly special beyond those comic highs. And yet, in something like Biloxi Blues, where your expectations might be ratcheted down quite a bit, he brandishes a real grasp of mise-en-scene and sense of place. Silkwood, for that matter, still feels like maybe his best movie, even if it doesn’t stand as a pillar of film history as, say, The Graduate does.