In those pre-packaged PR interviews designed to help journalists find fresh angles on stale ideas, Neil Simon likens this made-for-TV remake of “The Goodbye Girl” to Broadway, which trots out revivals every year. While that’s a relatively novel rationale for raiding your own vault, the explanation roughly equals the creativity that has gone into revisiting the 1977 film that won Richard Dreyfuss an Oscar. The result is a movie that can only be judged by measuring the performances of Patricia Heaton (less grating) and Jeff Daniels (less flamboyant) against their forebears.
Nothing in the remake is painful or even bad, necessarily, but like the shot-for-shot remake of “Psycho” or the musical career of Clay Aiken, it simply brings so little new to the party that the question is why it exists at all.
Best known as the mom on “Everybody Loves Raymond” (and of late, less flatteringly, as a supermarket pitchwoman), Heaton has the most to gain here in a role that’s not much of a reach from her day job. In both parts, after all, she’s a prickly mom — in this case, a single one who must defrost her iced-over heart to let a new love into her life.
As for Daniels, when his character asks in the early going, “What the hell am I getting myself into?,” he might as well be speaking for himself. “Thankless” is the term that comes to mind, largely because the original is so closely entwined with Dreyfuss’ rat-a-tat delivery. So when Daniels softens scenes — not punctuating every syllable, say, during the rant about “I … don’t … like … the … panties … hanging … on … the … rod” — the echo sounds tinny, fairly or not.
A quarter-century also has exposed how wispy the story is. Paula (Heaton) finds herself dumped by her actor boyfriend almost before the opening credits finish, forcing her to share the apartment with another actor, Elliot (Daniels), who has sublet it.
Caught in the middle is Paula’s adorably precocious 10-year-old daughter, Lucy (Hallie Kate Eisenberg, the kid from those creepy Pepsi commercials), whose mom apparently hasn’t heeded Dr. Laura’s advice about involving children in nascent romantic entanglements. Meanwhile, Elliot struggles with an Off Off Broadway version of “Richard III” and an eccentric director (a squandered Alan Cumming) whose rethinking of the play borders on burlesque.
Director Richard Benjamin (who also has a small cameo as a big-shot director) generally tones down the actors while playing up the warmth and fuzziness, as the central couple spar their way into a somewhat improbable romance. And while Simon calls the movie one of his finest creations, Paula ranks among his most thinly drawn characters, leaving Heaton to struggle with the same traits that hampered Marsha Mason.
Certainly, there’s inherent appeal in recognizable titles and pre-sold concepts these days, which helps explain otherwise hard-to-figure upcoming cable projects such as USA’s “Spartacus” or Showtime’s “The Lion in Winter,” remaking true classics. (Here’s one vote for leaving well enough alone — but I guess there’s only so many “Nash Bridges” episodes a channel can run.)
In that context, returning to a piffle like “The Goodbye Girl” isn’t quite so daunting a task; still, now that Simon has gotten the revival out of his system, can we please say “Goodbye” does mean forever?