Friday 30 September 2011

Barefoot in the Park (1967)


Neil Simon is probably one of the most successful writers of the 20th Century. The man behind numerous Broadway plays, films and some TV series, Simon built much of his career on own his life, creating a very particular style of writing comedy that has since been translated as the template for sitcoms as we know them. At one point in the 1960s, he actually had four successful plays running on Broadway simultaneously: Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Sweet Charity, and The Star Spangled Girl. He’s won Golden Globes, WGA awards and the Pulitzer, and been nominated for Emmys, Oscars and Tony awards. His third play, written in 1963 and based on his experiences of his first marriage, was Barefoot in the Park, which was then adapted by himself for the screen in 1967.

Paul Bratter (Robert Redford) is a stodgy young lawyer; Corrie Bratter (Jane Fonda) is a fun-seeking free spirit; and the pair of newlyweds are just starting their lives together in their new apartment. Their new home is small, cold, has a hole in the skylight, and is at the top of a five-storey building with no elevator, and all of their neighbours are eccentrics and oddballs. It’s here that they have to start their new lives.

I first saw Barefoot in the Park many years ago, and whilst I remember enjoying it, the only thing I could remember clearly was a brief back-and-forth between Robert Redford and Jane Fonda. He needs to get to work, but she wants him to stay and have fun (which is essentially the whole dynamic of their relationship). She says they should do something wild and crazy, but he says they’ll do it tomorrow night. “Like what?” she asks. He answers, “I’ll come home early, we’ll wallpaper each other.” I think that’s a funny line, classic Neil Simon and Redford delivers it just right. Now, it may just be due to my fondness for dry, absurd humour, but it made the whole film stick in my head. As such, it’s one of the many I’ve acquired over the years. Having given it a viewing today, there is one thing that is clear… it’s aged terribly.

When I said that Neil Simon helped to perfect the standard form of the sitcom, I’m not kidding. Many of his comedies are based on bringing together two personality types that are diametrically opposed, having them share the same space, and surrounding them with a succession of quirky characters and off-the-wall situations. There would also be no real story to drive them, instead having them simply react to each other and whatever happened to come through the door. The Odd Couple is often regarded as the standard to measure such projects against… well, Neil Simon wrote that. In fairness to him, this was just his style and he built a very successful career on it, and it was a method adopted years later by studios looking to create the most easily exploited situation for comedic purposes. Sit-com, get it? Anyway, this is exactly the format of Barefoot in the Park, however there is just no getting past the fact that this is too much a product of its time to be watchable today.

Like I said, there is no story to the film, since it’s meant to be character driven. Two newlyweds begin their new life in a new apartment, but they find out that living together may not be as easy as they think. This is indeed a situation, but there’s nothing that occurs externally to push things along. Oh, some of you out there may be thinking to yourself, “hang on, this all sounds very much like Dharma & Greg.” You’re not alone in that. Many people have since made that particular connection, and it’s no small wonder. I can only imagine that Chuck Lorre caught Barefoot in the Park on TV one night and decided to do his own version. Hell, the film even got its own brief sitcom spin-off, which lasted for 12 episodes in 1970. This is basically what you’ve got in Barefoot in the Park, a feature-length episode of a sitcom with any laughter, applause and funny material removed. So, sure, things happen to them, but nothing more serious than their furniture not being delivered until the next day. As such, it’s entirely down to the characters to create the conflict. So, what are the characters like?

Paul is a stodgy lawyer type, young and looking to make his way in his new firm. That’s pretty much it. He loves his new wife, but clearly finds her eccentricity to be a bit much every now and then. Well, when I say every now and then, I mean pretty much constantly. Every time they’re together, she clings onto him like a leech, and he tries to drag himself away because he has a job to go to. Frankly, given his reaction to her, and hers to him, it is virtually impossible to believe that they actually met before the film started. Physical attraction aside, they have nothing in common. This ultimately becomes the thing that comes between them and is conflict to be resolved - they are so unlike each other. Apparently he’s so straight-laced that Corrie has only ever seen him drunk once, and she didn’t find that out until the next day when he told her he was. He claims that he can have fun and be wild, that he once got so drunk he punched out an old woman and… wait a minute, what? He got drunk and punched out an old woman? This is the example he uses to prove that he can get drunk and have fun? Was that meant to be funny? That’s not funny, that’s horrible. He may act like the mature one in the relationship, but he apparently can get quite abusive when drunk… but it’s okay, that just means he’s having fun… Christ. As it is, Redford does a fairly good job in the role. He’s a likable guy, and makes Paul somewhat relatable, and he understands the rhythm of Simon’s writing very well. He’s no Jack Lemmon, but he works… when he’s not punching out old women.

Corrie’s mother, Ethel, is the most (read as: only) sympathetic character in the whole film. She’s patient and kind, if a bit melodramatic at times. She also seems to be a bit sickly, needing to sleep on a board for her back, and suffering from some mystery ailment that seems to be exacerbated by the incredibly long climb to her daughter and son-in-law’s new place. To some degree, she actually gets a bit abused by the film, having her endure discomfort, illness and a fall down the stairs (you see, it’s funny cause she could’ve been killed) in the interest of creating conflict. Mildred Natwick was the only person to receive an Oscar nomination for her work her, and whilst it wasn’t worth a win, it’s still a fine performance she gives.

Victor Velasco is the upstairs neighbour to Paul and Corrie, living in the attic of the building. He’s meant to be a kind of charming foreign guy, polite, gracious and possessed of the same lust for life as Corrie. However, he is also incredibly creepy, giving the first impression of a sex pest. Seriously, he first meets the couple when he tries to enter their apartment so he can climb through their window to get onto the roof to get to his place because the landlord changed the locks because he hasn’t paid rent in four months… wha-oh, never mind. Now, picture the scene – it’s 2am, the doorknob rattles as if someone is trying to enter. Corrie, dressed in a shirt and some socks, opens the door (I know, I know) and finds a well-dressed older man at her door. Now add the following dialogue:
Victor: Tell me... does your husband, uh, work during the day?
Corrie: Yes.
Victor: In an office?
Corrie: Yes.
Victor: Good. I work at home during the day. I predict interesting
complications. Am I making you nervous?
Corrie: Very nervous.
Victor: Ha! Wonderful. Once a month I try to make pretty young girls
nervous just to keep my ego from going out.

Now, question for the ladies out there, at what point would you have called the police on this thoroughly unsettling fellow? Honestly, this is all meant to be endearing or quirky or oddball or funny? No, this is the preamble to a sexual assault. Suffice to say, Victor does little to redress the balance in the rest of the film, only showing up to act crazy again. Charles Boyer portrays Victor Velasco and, although he certainly never intentionally projects any kind of disquieting predatory aspects, the facts of the character speak too loudly to be overcome. Boyer does what he can to make Victor worth liking, but it was a losing battle from the get-go.

Easily the most grating character of the film is Corrie, who is irritating as all hell. She’s whiny, clingy, immature, and kind of nuts. This is all meant to have her come off as kooky, fun-loving, and ultimately loveable for all her zest for life. However, it’s simply annoying and incredibly off-putting. One of the first things she wants to do in her new building is go to every one of her neighbours, pound on the door and scream for the police… what? What the hell kind of utter fruitcake actually does this? That’s not funny or charming or cute; that’s just a great way to instantly piss off everyone who lives in your building. She’s also got a habit of thinking that people that don’t constantly want to experience life and try new things are wrong and should be dragged into doing so. For example, when Corrie, Paul and Ethel have gone round to Victor’s for drinks and food, she chastises Paul for not wanting to eat some eel (“Paul, you have to try everything!”). In fairness, this is really down to Fonda’s weirdly intense delivery. When Victor suggests that they go somewhere “unusual” for dinner, a clearly unwell Ethel expresses some concern, which Corrie completely ignores: “That’s what we want… the unusual, right, Mother?” Oh, and if you’re wondering why the three accepted the invitation from Victor to visit, it’s because Corrie wants to set her mother up with him… that’s right, Corrie wants to set her mother up with the creepy guy that she met when he tried to enter her apartment at 2am, expressing delight at how nervous he was making the mostly undressed young woman. What in God’s name is wrong with this woman? Honestly, I could go on, but I’ll just move on. Jane Fonda’s performance is a bit awkward. Whilst she does commit to the peppy energy and excitement of her character, she doesn’t have the same feeling for Simon’s dialogue as the others do. As such, she often goes too far, turning what’s meant to be excitable and upbeat into crazy and strangely accusatory. Fonda has given some fine performances in her life, but this simply is not one of them.

Just to add one final blow to proceedings, Gene Saks’ direction is really very lacking. As is a typical problem when adapting a stage play to the screen, the director has treated it liked he’s filming the stage play, rather than making a film, so things just look blocky. Now, to be fair, this was Saks’ first directing gig, and it’s certainly not as bad as it could have been. However, the film still looks flat, stagey and lacking any decent form of composition. That Saks’ would go on to direct three more film adaptations of Neil Simon plays, with Simon doing the scripting duties, including The Odd Couple, is kind of weird since it is by no stretch a good job.

Barefoot in the Park is an incredibly infuriating film to watch. Though it was received much better at the time of its release, time has been very unkind. The characters are annoying, creepy or just insane; the direction is stagey and unpleasant; and it’s simply not funny. Some of the lines are okay, and the performances from Redford, Natwick and Boyer are varying degrees of good, but Fonda has no feel for the material, making an unpleasant character pretty much unbearable. Sadly, this will always be regarded as one of those "forgotten classics" or "overlooked gems" that never gets as much recognition as it deserves, but it just isn’t good enough to warrant that kind of reputation.

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