A Princess Diana joke isn’t the only tip-off that this TV movie version of “The Sunshine Boys” has spent a lot of time on the shelf. This latest telling of Neil Simon’s familiar tale of two grumpy old comics is heavy on the grump, short on the comic, and the oddball pairing of Peter Falk and Woody Allen is a joke that goes nowhere.
Filmed in New York by Hallmark Entertainment. Executive producer, Robert Halmi Sr.; producer-director, John Erman; co-producer, Gerrit Van Der Meer; writer, Neil Simon, based on his play; Far inferior to the current Broadway revival (with Jack Klugman and Tony Randall) and the 1975 feature film (Walter Matthau and George Burns), director John Erman’s flat, sluggish telepic, which Simon adapted from his play, takes a scattershot approach to updating the material, trimming away most, if not all, of the nostalgic charm of the original 1972 play.
Simon’s pair of estranged ex-vaudevillians have been changed to estranged ex-comics of 1950s/early ’60s vintage (think Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis). Not a bad idea, except that no one seems to have noticed that the characters’ vaudeville patter might need some updating as well. And while the marquee value ofAllen and Falk should be a coup, the two actors are woefully mismatched. Falk, with his old-age makeup and overcooked Yiddish delivery, seems at least a generation older than Allen. In fact, Falk comes across like the ex-vaudevillian that the new script insists he isn’t, while Allen does a terrific, if slightly exaggerated, imitation of Woody Allen, circa now.
Falk plays Willie Clark, the bitter half of the once-famous comic team known as the Sunshine Boys. Forced into semi-retirement and total obscurity eight years earlier when Al Lewis (Allen) broke up the act, Willie now lives in a disheveled Manhattan apartment (real New Yorkers will envy a spacious, light-filled place that does little to suggest the character’s modest means) and goes on the odd audition for commercials.
Al, meanwhile, lives in New Jersey with his daughter’s family. Since Allen makes no attempt to play old, the daughter’s doting seems rather odd — in a Woody Allen movie, the same actress would play his mistress.
Willie’s talent-agent niece (a nephew in the original, now played by Sarah Jessica Parker) makes the curmudgeon an offer: Warner Bros. wants the comic duo to re-team for a cameo in a big Christmas movie that’s “funnier than ‘Home Alone.’ ” Salaries of $ 75,000 each convince the two bickering funnymen to accept.
What’s always worked about the play is Simon’s unusual avoidance of sentiment overload: “The Sunshine Boys” isn’t about two men who, deep down, truly love each other — it’s about two comics who don’t even like each other but find themselves connected for life by that inexplicable spark called stage chemistry.
So what happens when there’s no chemistry? Well, there’s no humor, for starters. Nor pathos, nor momentum. Director Erman, whose credits are heavy on heart-tugging melodrama (“Who Will Love My Children?,” “Breathing Lessons,” the recent “Ellen Foster”), can’t stir up much rapport between his two leads and, perhaps worse, lets joke after joke slip away into a vacuum of dead air.
Parker doesn’t lend much depth to the niece, and Whoopi Goldberg, walking through an uncredited final-reel cameo as Willie’s nurse, makes little impression beyond her use of the word “dissing,” which must have seemed very hip when “Sunshine Boys” was filmed a couple of years ago.
Tech credits are of the “Hallmark Hall of Fame” sort, which is to say top-notch, if more than a little austere. Continuity, however, could be better: In the first reunion scene, Allen’s gloves come and go with more mystery than O.J. Simpson’s.