No. 40: Max Dugan Returns

BTTMlogoNote: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

As we enter the next phase of our Back to the Movies journey, we encounter an example of one of the most unique film voices of the 1970s and ’80s, playwright and screenwriter Neil Simon. I have to admit, I had no prior experience with Simon’s work prior to seeing Max Dugan Returns, his surprisingly strong-performing 1983 “family comedy”, but I had a basic impression of Simon from what I’ve read and heard from others.

Simon’s name doesn’t hold quite the same sway in 2010 as it once did but in 1983, he was certainly a highly respected name. He had already earned a Tony for his legendary stage comedy The Odd Couple along with four Oscar nominations for Best Screenplay. Simon made his name writing comedies and light dramas that typically centered on average, blue collar folk dealing with the struggles and pleasures of everyday life.

And that’s exactly what we see in the opening minutes of Max Dugan Returns, a single mother named Nora (Marsha Mason) tries to support her son Michael (played by a very young Matthew Broderick) on a teacher’s salary. We see her rushing to get out of their messy, somewhat ramshackle house on the way to school and growing more and more exasperated as the day goes on, leading us to believe that seemingly nothing can go right for Nora.

Then in walks the premise: Jason Robards, in an extremely entertaining turn as the title character Max Dugan, shows up late one night with only a briefcase to his name. Max is Nora’s father, a man she hasn’t seen for years after he was imprisoned for some non-violent, mostly harmless financial shenanigans. After serving his time, Max has the last few years stealing money from a casino (it’s okay though because they casino owners screwed him over) and now wants to share that money with his long-lost daughter and grandson. Obviously, as a person of high moral fiber Nora refuses to take any of that dirty money. Ah but there’s a catch: Max reveals that he’s dying of a non-specific disease and won’t be able to die in peace unless Nora takes the money.

Despite Max’s impassioned pleas, Nora still refuses to make herself and her son an accomplice to a crime by accepting the money, though she does allow Max to live out his final days with his family.

Okay, there’s the setup – now the fun starts. Since Nora won’t accept any of the money, Max decides to take another strategy. Fabulous gifts start showing up at the house wrapped in red bows with the explanation that they’re prizes that Nora has won on “one of those game shows that you don’t have to enter to win.” Nora is obviously upset by this development but doesn’t want her son to know what’s really going on and so we’re treated to a number of delightful scenes of Broderick enjoying the latest in cool 1983 technology. The shelf full of AV equipment in particular is a real treat, as is the shoulder-mounted home video camera and the kitchen appliances. The “prizes” alone make this movie worth watching for the nostalgia factor.

While the story is a little easy to see coming, the film is not without its merits particularly when it comes to the performances. Robards is a remarkably charming actor and he’s really what makes the film work. Broderick in his first film performance does what Nicolas Cage did in Valley Girl, which is to immediately show the potential and qualities that would later make him a major star. Broderick was somewhat discovered by Simon for a role on stage and shortly thereafter cast in Max Dugan Returns and the mix of sincerity and youthful mischief with a good measure of braininess thrown in, the qualities that made Ferris Bueler such a beloved character, were all there in 1983 when Broderick made his screen debut.

Donald Sutherland also turns in a nice performance as Nora’s boyfriend who also happens to be a cop. His character is trying to carefully balance trying to be a good boyfriend while also following his gut instinct that something might be up with Nora and the mysterious older man living in her house and Sutherland does a really good job making the character a sympathetic sort of villain.

My impression coming away from my first Neil Simon experience is that there’s an awful lot of similarity in his writing style to one of my favorite filmmakers of all time, Woody Allen. While Allen set his stories in a world full of slightly less sympathetic characters (typically self-aware intellectuals) dealing with less family-friendly problems (dysfunctional sex lives), the comedic tone is very similar between the two writers.

The Woody Allen connection isn’t a coincidence. Allen worked alongside Simon and his brother Danny as a TV writer in the 1950s and has been quoted as saying that he learned everything he knows about comedy writing from the Simon brothers. In addition, Max Dugan Returns is one of three screenplays Simon wrote that was directed by Herbert Ross, a one-time collaborator with Allen when he directed the screen version of Allen’s breakthrough stage effort Play It Again, Sam.

While Simon’s work in Max Dugan Returns isn’t anywhere near as thought-provoking and edgy as Allen’s stuff, fans of Allen’s work would still enjoy the writing from a comedy standpoint, with lots of clever references and wordplay. While it’s a pretty conventional comedy, it’s not hard to understand why this film did as well as it did in 1983. It’s a comedy about a financial miracle landing on your doorstep during a tough time. It’s something I’m sure would probably resonate pretty well with today’s audiences about as well as it did in 1983.

CLICK HERE to view the original theatrical trailer.

Next Up: The cable holiday staple A Christmas Story.