www.bangitout.com Jordan Hiller's Essential list is hitting its TOP Ten…here is #7
#7 Brighton Beach Memoirs
Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs, the first play (then film) of his semi-autobiographical Eugene Jerome trilogy, takes us back to Simon’s childhood and encompasses a few hectic days in the life of an American Jewish family in the late 1930's. Over the course of the production, the domestic mayhem that unfolds in such a short period of time is indicative of all families. Somehow each conflict, from inception to moment of crisis, is at the same time minor, overblown, and cataclysmic, which can easily reflect the tantrums and sordid politics found in every household. However, Simon's prism is unmistakably a Jewish one, and not just because of the heavy “my muthuh, my fathuh” accents and arguably stereotypical characterizations.
Eugene, played well here by rookie Jonathan Silverman (but even better by Matthew Broderick in Biloxi Blues), narrates the film, sometimes breaking the fourth wall, and always representing the intelligent yet naïve, smart aleck observer. Eugene is essentially the serene, put upon philosopher, there to grin and bear it because only he has the omnipotent perspective. It’s as if he is relating the tale with the benefit of hindsight glasses, knowing everything will turn out fine and dandy in the end. Simon may have seen himself the same way in the context of his family growing up, as is the classic portrait of the artist. Eugene’s only significant problem is that everyone around him is confronting some sort of personal calamity.
Though Eugene is there to help where he can, the weight of the family’s issues fall upon Mr. Jack Jerome, a hard working saint, yet his precarious health becomes a source of worry once the load becomes drastically and suddenly heavier. If only he could spend a few minutes in peace, listening to the radio and its troubling reports of the Nazi rise in Europe. His cousins are in Poland and the news is getting worse.
Eugene’s pretty young cousin, who along with her widowed mother lives with the family, threatens to run away for a shot at Broadway. His older brother has been fired for standing on principle and complicates the problem by gambling, while we are lead to believe the family needs every penny to survive (though they are probably closer to middle class).
A very tightly wound and impressive Blythe Danner plays Eugene’s mother and her predicament is that she suffers from a severe case of being a Jewish mother. She comes across as impossible and despotic, while somehow maintaining an immovable compassion and devotion to her husband, sister, and children. If anyone, Danner holds the film together, which is appropriate considering, if anyone, mothers anchor family. Finally, remarkably pathetic Aunt Blanche (Judith Ivey) is constantly at a loss, devastated since her husband’s death, and now being courted by the alcoholic Irishman from across the street. One preeminent Jewish dilemma raised by Mr. Simon is that of assimilation. While the Jerome’s are by no means religious (though Mrs. Jerome encourages her husband to go to shul and pray when the flurry of tribulations arrive), there is certainly an overarching message of “We are better off keeping to ourselves.” Simon does somewhat present a counterargument, but the well established law, as was undoubtedly impressed upon him, remains.
Besides navigating a familial minefield and keeping his nose clean, Eugene's greatest challenge and most pronounced personality quirk is a raging case of being pubescent and horny. His rabid lust is both humorous (Peeping Tom fantasies) and disturbing (bordering on incest). His only aspirations in life are to see (maybe one day touch) naked women and to play for the New York Yankees.
Brighton Beach Memoirs recreates the rich neighborhood flavor of ethnic ghetto Brooklyn and delivers a precise sense of time and location. Director Gene Saks, who helmed Simon classics such as Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple, has a very comfortable handle on bringing Simon's stage into a more liberating framework. He allows the play's words and characters to be the focus, and the camera to merely hang around as witness.
The general measure of audience enjoyment for a film based on Simon has everything to do with one’s tolerance for the playwright. He either will bring a smile to your face and a soft warmth to your heart, or he'll do those things and in addition have your eyes rolling. Neil Simon is basically the John Hughes of modern stage drama. Prolific, sometimes genius, but in a way that only sniffs true art. There is never that glaring statement of immortality. In a world where Simon’s contemporary David Mamet writes dialogue with a gritty edginess that makes us think his words are real and human, Simon’s set ups can be deemed cheeky and cheesy, even when his material is quite somber and dark. Simon’s unquestionable gift, which is his mass appeal, is equally his curse.
In Brighton Beach Memoirs, the conflicts and turmoil are more or less the stuff of your average three day Yom Tov without sufficient Bartenura Moscato. But Simon's reputation as a lightweight is not a result of his inability to orchestrate chaos – he does that extremely well – rather, he suffers for his tidy endings.
With all the things spiraling out of control in the Jerome household, it is unsatisfying from a dramatic point of view that everything wraps us so seamlessly. In the final scene, all matters having been charmingly resolved following individual moments of confession and convalescence, the Jerome’s gather around the kitchen table to read a letter that says the Polish cousins have escaped and are on route to America. Although the family is cramped and crowded and breathing down each other’s necks and money is scarce and tensions can go code orange at any moment, where the Polish cousins will stay and who will welcome them with open arms upon arrival is not a question.
The curtains close with a lingering sense of the most Jewish sentiment of all.