When older TV writers are graylisted — ignored by youthful network executives “who think Ben Affleck would have made a better Rhett Butler than Clark Gable” — the pain and sense of abandonment can be overwhelming. “Marvin and Mel” attempts to explore the cruelty of that rejection through a tale of two squabbling partners who feel their talent is still intact, even though “45 was a long time ago.” Now and then it touches a nerve, but the gags are strained and the promising plotline — a young girl puts her name on their scripts and fronts for them at pitch meetings — arrives too late and gets bogged down with bickering.
Mel (“Love Boat’s” Bernie Kopell) is an unsympathetic character, and writers George Tricker and Neil Rosen fail to humanize him. Shown as “tighter than a tick,” stealing utensils from Nate ‘n Al and complaining when his wife buys eight pairs of shoes (“What is she, a centipede?”), he has a peculiarly sour persona. Kopell is generally a warm, appealing actor, yet his probing into the sex life of partner Marvin (Robert Pine), along with a desire to know how many erections Marvin has per week, sounds limp and contrived.
Pine’s Marvin, looking dapper in pink shirt and red bowtie, is sensitively directed by Richard Kline and written with considerably more depth. Marvin is supposed to be the serious member of the team, a writer who stresses characterization rather than gratuitous gags, and Pine plays him with winning honesty. Needled by his collaborator as an author “who wouldn’t know a joke if it bit you in the ass,” Pine maintains a sense of integrity. Whether arguing that the fate of a canary in their new script should be taken seriously, rather than ridiculed, or reflecting sadly about the loss of his wife, the actor rises above surrounding cliches.
Marie (Darlena Tejeiro), a young Latino who delivers muffins to their office, is portrayed with perky, forthright sexuality but doesn’t seem savvy enough to serve as a convincing stand-in for established writers. Yet overnight she’s a network darling, her scripts hungrily sought, and even Marvin and Mel’s former agent applauds her, ironically informing Mel, “She’s funny like you, Mel, but she’s a young funny!”
The story zigzags around, making Marie greedy and acquisitive, then defending her for bringing new life to Marvin and Mel’s careers. She’s a device, not a person, and the script mistakenly drops her in the middle of the second act.
Mel clearly feels he’s the true talent of the team, and when he bluntly barks out his feelings, we can’t believe the partnership survived and flourished for three decades. This moment of raw truth is rapidly glossed over with a saccharine ending.