Monday, October 8, 2012

Hot in the City: "The Prisoner of Second Avenue" (1975)

Jack Lemmon and Anne Bancroft score a number of laughs in a filmed Neil Simon play that runs on the abrasive side.

Although filmed in 1975, issues in this movie resonate today. Mel (Jack Lemmon) is a frazzled ad executive at an unsuccessful Madison Avenue company. Edna (Anne Bancroft) is his lovely wife, their daughters are in college, and the two are going through the worst heat wave New York City has ever seen. They live on the fourteenth floor of an apartment building surrounded by noisy neighbors and traffic. What a time for Mel to have a nervous breakdown.

Mel is fired from his job the very night everything in the apartment does not seem to work, and the piles of garbage on the street are releasing odors he can smell fourteen floors in the air. He doesn't tell Edna he was fired, but the two visit Mel's more successful older brother Harry (Gene Saks). Harry has been trying to get the couple out of the city for years, and this life altering firing might be the catalyst. The day Mel decides to tell Edna, their apartment is robbed because Edna forgot to lock the door. Mel begins having chest pains and takes to the terrace to scream at the city and his neighbors.

Edna takes a production assistant job at a television station, always trying to keep an optimistic attitude as Mel locks himself in the apartment and becomes increasingly paranoid thanks to daytime talk radio. Harry enlists his and Mel's sisters, Pauline (Elizabeth Wilson) and Pearl (Florence Stanley), to help Mel with psychiatrist's bills. Edna thinks moving from the city would be the best remedy for Mel. Soon, Mel is sedated and loses much of his will to go on, and Edna comes home with big news.

There are more than enough laughs here to recommend this comedy. Bancroft is wonderful as Edna, trying to be the rock in the storm that is Mel. Lemmon plays Mel over the top, appropriately. His terrace rants are wonderful, and the few dramatic scenes are well handled, too. I liked Frank's direction here, the opening of the play feels natural, but you can still tell this originated as a play, with most of the action taking place in Mel and Edna's apartment.

Once in a while, the film's tone would turn sour and abrasive. While this may not be a bad thing, the film is a downer comedy, and laughing at the couple's misfortunes began to wear after a while. The acting saves this from turning into a complete depressive episode, and watching talent like Sylvester Stallone, F. Murray Abraham, and M. Emmet Walsh in early roles is fun.

The 1970's were grand times for Simon, when almost everything he wrote was being turned into a film. "The Prisoner of Second Avenue" is not perfect, but I laughed at it enough to recommend it. (* * * *) out of five stars.