Oddly cast and surprisingly claustrophobic despite the conventional ways in which Neil Simon has opened up his stage play, “Jake’s Women” makes an awkward transition to television. Alan Alda reprises the title role of a novelist who turns to the women in his life, alive and dead, past and present, on the verge of his nervous breakdown. Though technically more accomplished than Gene Saks’ 1992 Broadway production, Glenn Jordan’s telepic nevertheless exposes all the seams in an ambitious, deeply personal but ultimately unfinished work that had one of the most tortuous histories of any in the Simon canon.
Filmed in Los Angeles and New York by Hallmark Entertainment. Executive producers, Robert Halmi Jr.; producer-director, Glenn Jordan; co-producer, Robert Bennett Steinhauer; writer, Neil Simon; based on the play by Simon; “Jake’s Women” begins with Maggie (Anne Archer) announcing that after eight years of marriage, she wants a breather from Jake. They don’t communicate; he’s too wrapped up in his fictional worlds and she’s speeding along on some undefined corporate fast track. With Maggie out of the way, Jake carries on long dialogues with his sister Karen (Julie Kavner), a wisecracking reality check; his neurotic shrink (Joyce Van Patten, another holdover from Broadway); his college senior daughter, Molly (Kimberly Williams), and his first wife, Julie (Mira Sorvino), who has been dead for 10 years.
Obviously, most of these conversations take place in Jake’s head. He summons the women at will, and they appear, sometimes reluctantly and, at least as far as Karen is concerned, usually in unflattering clothes. The lugubrious stage production never efficiently pulled off the exits and entrances of characters who are sometimes really there, sometimes only imagined. On TV, the trick is effortlessly managed with dissolves.
We’re also given establishing shots of New York City, of Jake driving up to visit Molly at school, Jake lecturing his creative writing students. Despite these, “Jake’s Women” remains essentially a sulky interior monologue with Pirandellian aspirations. Jake is a close cousin of the self-satisfied director Alda played (perfectly) in Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Jake doesn’t have much insight; if you were a student in that class you’d surely demand a tuition refund. That it all works out in the end for Jake and Maggie is nice, but it’s not very convincing.
Yet I must admit that as I jotted the words “hokey” and “unbelievable” in my notebook while watching “Jake’s Women,” I was often doing so through tears. It’s old-fashioned in both its comedy — the set pieces can be very funny — and its sentiment. In the central scene of both the play and the film, Jake conjures a reunion between Julie and Molly — the wife he cannot stop mourning and the daughter whose growth from child into young woman she has been cruelly denied a part in. It’s almost unbearably poignant and lays naked the elemental need for closure this play — a kind of coda, really, to “Chapter Two”– must have represented for Simon.
Onstage, Alda was game until the scenes that required him to dig a little deeper; here Jake seems, if anything, even more implacable. Archer is dour and one-note in the thankless role of Maggie (played by Helen Shaver, who gave as good as she got, on Broadway). Kavner plays Kavner, which is to say sweet, funny , loving and only mildly irritating — certainly less so than Van Patten, though again, it’s hard to tell where the playwright’s caricature ends and the performance begins.
The bright spots are Sorvino and Williams, thoroughly believable as mother and daughter, and both radiant in the big scene (as were Kate Burton and Tracy Pollan onstage). You’ll cry too, if you can hang in there long enough.