Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Movie Review: Good Neighbor Sam (1964)


A romantic farce about neighbours swapping spouses, Good Neighbor Sam stretches a single joke almost to the breaking point. An engaging cast provides just enough momentum to avoid disconcertion.

In San Francisco, Sam Bissell (Jack Lemmon) is a lowly employee at a large advertising firm, but a dedicated husband to wife Minerva (Dorothy Provine) and an attentive father to their daughters. Minerva reconnects with friend Janet (Romy Schneider), who takes up residence as the new next-door neighbour of the Bissells. At the company where Sam works, trouble is brewing when big-shot but old-fashioned client Simon Nurdlinger (Edward G. Robinson) threatens to pull his large account due to the lack of family values among the firm's executive team members. The company turns to the dependable Bissell to save the day, handing him responsibility for the Nurdlinger account and an instant promotion. It works: Nurdlinger takes a liking to Sam, believing him to be a true family man.

Janet suddenly finds out that she is about to inherit $15 million, but she will only receive her inheritance if she can prove that she is happily married. In fact, she is in the midst of divorcing husband Howard (Mike Connors). Desperate to fool snooping relatives who are trying to muscle in on her new millions, Janet frantically recruits Sam to be her pretend happy husband. The charade unfolds in front of Nurdlinger, who believes Janet to be Sam's wife, triggering a prolonged case of mistaken identity and obfuscation which only gets more complicated when Howard shows up to regain the love of his wife.

Good Neighbor Sam twists itself into a tight knot in search of hard-earned laughs. Two unlikely narratives are set in motion and allowed to collide to set up the film's premise. Both Nurdlinger's sudden interest in the morality of the company's executives and Janet's sudden inheritance of $15 million stretch the bounds of  movie reality. Even then, the intervention of another contrived plot device is required to set the humour in motion, in the form of Janet's relatives blatantly invading her privacy, forcing her to hurriedly find a surrogate husband.

Once the film arrives in comedy territory, it is pleasant enough and draws some sharp laughs. Lemmon is dependably good, the role of Sam perfectly suited to his screen persona of the meek everyman manipulated by others and plunged into situations larger than he can handle. Here his eccentricities are coloured-in, Sam provided with a hobby as a junk sculptor, as well as two quacky ducks as household pets.

The ladies provide hearty support, Romy Schneider effervescent and radiating understated euro-chic, while Dorothy Provine provides pragmatic All American balance with sturdy and only slightly malicious resolve. Edward G. Robinson get just a few scenes but is memorable as the crusty Simon Nurdlinger, chewing out anyone who disagrees with his version of morality.

Good Neighbor Sam does stumble in its final 20 minutes, Sam and Janet racing unconvincingly around town all night to erase evidence of their fake union. Director David Swift is unable to resist an onerous city tour, and bloats the buffoonery to billboard size as the search for happy endings all round gets a bit desperate. Sam may be a good neighbour, but he is not as good in recognizing the limits of a single joke.






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