Saturday 23 July 2016

Movie Review: Chapter Two (1979)

A romantic drama with some wit, Chapter Two is an autobiographical story about second chances from writer Neil Simon. The film is talky and stagy but nevertheless saved by earnest intentions and good performances.

In New York City, George Schneider (James Caan) is a writer still coming to terms with the death of his wife Barb after 12 years of marriage. His brother Leo (Joseph Bologna) arranges a series of disastrous blind dates, but eventually one of them works: George meets and falls in love with stage actress Jennie MacLaine (Marsha Mason), a recent divorcée.

The romance between George and Jennie is fast and idyllic, and within days they are talking about marriage, although George does suffer episodes of withdrawal and guilt as he continues to process the loss of Barb. In the meantime, Leo's marriage appears to be wobbling, and Jennie's best friend Faye (Valerie Harper) also seeks something beyond the confines of her marriage. Despite Leo's warnings that the couple are moving too fast, George and Jennie do get married, but there is trouble ahead for the seemingly happy couple.

Directed by Robert Moore and based on Simon's play, Chapter Two is a retelling of Simon's romance with Mason, his actual second wife. With Mason effectively playing herself under the guise of Jennie MacLaine, the film has undoubted passion and agony anchored in the writer's real experiences.

Moore does his best to disguise the stage origins of the material, locating events around New York City and keeping the actors moving even within the confines of George and Jennie's apartments. There is even a longish honeymoon interlude thrown in, showcasing the Caribbean. The initial romantic pursuit scenes between George and Jeannie, featuring numerous phone calls culminating in a five minute date, are genuinely awkward and cute. But at 124 minutes the film is too long, and many scenes carry on with long monologues that work well on paper and perhaps the stage, but appear contrived on the screen.

However, Simon's prose is witty enough to ride out most of the bumps, and the film's highlight is a passionate soliloquy delivered by Mason confirming her desire to stand and fight for herself, her man, and their relationship. It borders on wince-inducing, but Mason finds enough fire in her heart to make it work, and wraps the evolving status of feminism, women's aspirations and the embrace of second chances in one epic pitch.

Caan is less engaged, and other than his initial passionate pursuit of Jennie, the character of George Schneider is written as generally passive. For long periods Caan just has to play at morose and silently stare out into the distance, an understandable stance given his profound loss, but not great cinematic drama. Joseph Bologna and Valerie Harper provide stronger than usual support, and the characters of Leo and Faye get their own side stories to add texture to Simon's commentary about the status of relationships among sophisticated urbanites in the late 1970s.

Although the film is obviously self-obsessed, the euphorias and miseries of hearts struggling through emotional rollercoasters carry enough universal appeal for Chapter Two to create and maintain interest.

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