Monday 14 September 2020

Movie Review: The Prisoner Of Second Avenue (1975)

A drama with some humour about the stresses of city living, The Prisoner Of Second Avenue touches on some weighty issues but never quite finds it footing.

In New York City, Mel Edison (Jack Lemmon) and his wife Edna (Anne Bancroft) are a middle aged married couple living in an apartment building. The noise, crime, crowds and heat of the city are all getting to Mel, who is frequently irritable. With the economy in recession, he loses his office job.

The couple take a trip to the countryside to visit Mel's older brother Harry (Gene Saks), but Mel's mood remains bleak. Stuck at home all day, he starts to slip into a bitter depression. Edna finds a job, but when their apartment is burgled, Mel is tipped over the edge.

Written by Neil Simon as an adaptation of his play, The Prisoner Of Second Avenue tackles middle-aged anxieties as a bustling city starts to overwhelm an empty nest couple. Directed by Melvin Frank, the film is certainly talkative and largely confined to the Edison apartment, but enough familiar hassles are tossed at Mel and Edna to maintain narrative momentum.

Simon's trademark humour is evident in a few zinger lines, but overall the attempts at comedy sit uneasily with the overall serious subject matter. Mel cannot sleep, the couple are economically vulnerable, his depression hits hard, and Edna's ability to hold their marriage together starts to fray. His anger and frustration spill out in several tirades, and the film stumbles into awkward terrain where laughs are uncomfortable guests.

A few other script weaknesses erode the film's quality. For an essentially two-person drama, precious little is revealed about Mel and Edna's background. Simon barely bothers to define Mel's job (the setting is the most generic office), nor the work Edna secures (the milieu is the creative arts). The late introduction of Mel's sisters is clumsy, as is a bolted-on one-scene exposition of brother Harry's view of the tension between the brothers.

Jack Lemmon and Anne Bancroft ride out the rough passages with confident performances, theatrical for sure but with demonstrated conviction in their couplehood. A pre-stardom Sylvester Stallone as a suspected Central Park mugger, F. Murray Abraham as a taxi driver and M. Emmet Walsh as the building doorman have small roles.

The Prisoner Of Second Avenue has plenty to complain about, but shouts in uneven tones.

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