During the ’70s and ’80s, there was an onslaught of Neil Simon plays being adapted in movies. He was at his peek in both venues, penning one hit for the stage, and then rewriting it for the screen. Sure, he created a number of comical masterpieces like Murder by Death and The Cheap Detective during that time, but he also wrote several sappy semi-autobiographical dramedies like Only When I Laugh and The Goodbye Girl — most of which starred his then-wife Marsha Mason as a slightly-fictionalized, overly-dramatic version of herself, with a nice Jewish boy like Judd Hirsch or Richard Dreyfuss usually starring opposite (and receiving top-billing) as a somewhat imaginary version of Neil Simon.
While the plays were almost always hits, the theatrical adaptations sometimes lost their steam. And a wonderful example is present in Neil Simon’s Chapter Two, wherein Marsha once again plays a variation of her own self — in a story that is in fact based on a particular chapter of Neil’s own life — an actress who can jump from being joyously happy to cheerlessly tearful without so much as a second’s notice. Taking the lead part as the fictional Neil Simon here is the one and only James Caan — an actor who was born to helm many roles, but not this one, as his ability to portray a witty wise-cracking writer leaves a lot to be desired.
The story here finds George Schneider (Caan) returning from a trip to Europe after venturing to a vacation after the untimely death of his wife. At the same time, soap opera actress Jennie MacLaine (Mason) is returning from a similar journey — although she has gone on a vacation to forget about her failed marriage to an American football athlete. Thanks to George’s press agent of a brother (Joseph Bologna) — another character who is quick to drop a witticism, as are all characters in Neil Simon stories — the two are introduced to each other. George begins to phone-stalk Jennie, and she somehow falls for it all. Soon, the two are in a whirlwind storybook romance; sadly, however, George discovers he really hasn’t had proper time to let his deceased spouse go.
Really, that’s all Chapter Two is, only it’s full of the usual Neil Simon jokes that will either make you grin or cringe — most of which are as dated as the late ’70s fashions this movie displays. Caan simply isn’t believable here, and the way Marsha’s real-life character is written almost seems like she’s bipolar — going from joyously happy one moment to shedding more tears than an April shower the next. Likewise, Simon’s story has an almost violent tendency to go from lighthearted romantic comedy to serious heartfelt drama with little to no warning. It might just leave you with a bad case of whiplash. I can only imagine that Neil forgot to translate something from his own play onto the silver screen — that, or the play was just as dull and sappy to begin with.
Don’t get me wrong: I feel for anyone who has lost someone in their lives, I really do — but this is akin than your average late-night made-for-TV drama.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment brings us Chapter Two as part of its “Choice Collection” — a line of Manufactured-on-Demand DVD-Rs that are available from various online retailers. The menu-less, barebones disc presents the film in its original widescreen aspect ratio, and the music heard on the mono English soundtrack almost overpowers the dialogue at times (which might be seen as a bit of a blessing to some).