Friday 5 July 2019

Movie Review: The Goodbye Girl (1977)

An opposites-attract romantic comedy, The Goodbye Girl enjoys amiable lead performances but suffers from constrained writing.

In New York City, cash-strapped Paula McFadden (Marsha Mason) is a former Broadway dancer, now raising her 10 year old daughter Lucy (Quinn Cummings). They are both shocked when Paula's current boyfriend Tony, an actor, abandons them and heads off to Europe. To make matters worse, Tony sub-lets their apartment to Elliot Garfield (Richard Dreyfuss), an actor arriving from Chicago to star in an off-Broadway production of Shakespeare's Richard III.

Paula and Elliott reach at a tense agreement to share the apartment. She goes back to dance training and auditioning to support herself and Lucy, while Elliott struggles during rehearsals to understand his director's unique interpretation of King Richard. Although they bicker constantly, an attraction starts to develop between Paula and Elliott.

This time writing directly for the screen, Neil Simon goes back to The Odd Couple concept and crams two incompatible adults into a small apartment. The Goodbye Girl throws in precocious but clever Lucy into the mix to further boost the mismatched dynamics. The outcome is familiar material with a decent makeover, and the duo of Richard Dreyfuss and Marsha Mason (Simon's wife at this stage) easily shoulder the responsibility of creating and maintaining momentum.

In addition to being opposites Paula and Elliott joust as equals, both claiming the high ground when justified and retreating or yielding when prudent. Dreyfuss is all about restless energy, despite Elliott meditating (in the nude) with his guitar and practicing yoga at all hours. Mason brings barely-contained anger at how Paula's life is unraveling. Together they create enough humorous tension to navigate Simon's prose, engaging in clever, robust and generally sharp dialogue exchanges.

Despite some zingers and wry observations from Lucy, The Goodbye Girl's script does carry hints of lazy writing. Despite writing for the screen Simon is unable to break away from the stage. The action is frequently confined to the apartment, the excursions to Elliot's rehearsals and Paula's dance auditions appearing forced and perfunctory before Simon hurries back to the friendly confines he knows best.

More disappointing is a romance that appears imposed on the two leads, director Herbert Ross unable to convincingly pivot from hostility to love. Elliott and Paula spend so much time bickering and angry, then conveniently fall into each other's arms for seemingly no other reason than the movie entering its final third. The scenes of conflict make for much better entertainment than the clunky romance, and The Goodbye Girl loses its edge once the arguing stops, forcing Simon and Ross to chart one last prolonged conflict to regain a spark.

The story waves at a few routine overarching themes, include Paula always falling for the wrong guy (usually an actor) and taking out her anger on the next wrong guy (also usually an actor), the scrappy hand to mouth lifestyle in the arts world, and a mother balancing career, daughter and romance. The Goodbye Girl can't pick her men very well, but at least her ups and downs make for modest entertainment.

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