Monday, October 13, 2014

Alan Arkin Delivers One Of His Funniest Performances in Neil Simon's Last of the Red Hot Lovers

Alan Arkin shines in this trenchant comedy about a bored, middle-aged restaurateur and his failed attempts at having an extramarital affair.

(review contains spoilers)

Based on Neil Simon's Broadway play, Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1972) is a hilarious and incisive comedy that utilizes Alan Arkin's dry, deadpan humor to great effect. This is one of Simon's most underrated screen adaptations. The screenplay is distinguished by the award-winning playwright's razor-sharp dialogue and wry observations on life.

A Bored Restaurateur Experiences A Midlife Crisis

Directed by longtime Simon collaborator Gene Saks, the film follows the misadventures of Barney Cashman (Arkin), a mild-mannered 45-year-old restaurateur who's suffering from a midlife crisis. Barney is bored to death with the mundane routine of his life. He feels as though life has passed him by, and he has nothing left to look forward to. In his state of ennui, Barney finds himself constantly eyeing all the beautiful young women who appear to be everywhere he looks. And for the first time in his 22-year marriage, he's seriously considering having an extramarital affair, thinking it might bring some excitement back into his life.

However, having an affair is much easier said than done, especially for Barney who
makes Andy Stitzer from The 40-Year-Old Virgin look like Iceberg Slim. Barney is utterly clueless when it comes to interacting romantically with the opposite sex. He got married really young, and besides his wife, the only other sexual partner he's ever had was a slovenly 44-year-old prostitute when he was 18. The experience fell short of Penthouse Forum material for Barney: "It cost me $7, and I threw up all night long. And in the next three days, I took 12 baths, nine showers and I didn't touch anybody in my family for two months."

Barney Completely Bungles His First Attempt At An Affair

Barney's first opportunity to have an affair comes in the form of a tall, attractive woman named Elaine Navazio (Sally Kellerman), who's a frequent patron of his fish restaurant. Elaine is a hardened and cynical married woman with a nasty smoker's hack. There's no sense of romance about her. To Barney's chagrin, she’s totally upfront about why she’s there and wants to get right down to business. Elaine is alternately impatient and amused by Barney's complete ineptitude at seduction. An example of his cluelessness: He chose his elderly mother's apartment for the afternoon rendezvous. The two have to be out by five lest his mother catches them. 

Sally Kellerman gives a superb performance as the sardonic, chain-smoking Elaine. And it's hilarious watching Arkin's naive and clueless Barney play off this worldly, touch-as nails character. Barney naively wants to make the encounter a memorable and romantic experience, while Elaine is coldly pragmatic and unsentimental about the whole situation. She treats it for what it is: an opportunity to have sex and nothing more. Elaine finally grows bored with Barney's cluelessness and leaves.

Barney Has A Second Shot At An Affair With Aspiring Actress Bobbi Michele

Barney gets another shot at having an affair, this time with a psychotic aspiring actress/singer named Bobbi Michele (Paula Prentiss) who he met in the park while on his lunch break. Bobbi is ball of nervous energy and erratic mood swings. Barney is taken aback by her wild stories of depraved men who stalk, proposition and abuse her as well as other crazies who inhabit her demented universe. The high point of this encounter—and probably of the entire film—is when she coerces Barney into smoking a joint with her. Of course, Barney has never smoked weed before, and his reaction to getting high for the first time is a howl. It's one of the funniest things Arkin has ever done on film. When a retrospective reel is put together to honor Arkin's career, the clip of him getting high in this scene should definitely be included.

And Paula Prentiss is brilliant as the flakey nutcase Bobby Michele. Prentiss brings a sublime combination of playful sex appeal and psychosis to her role of Bobbi. The scene ends with a stoned Barney and Bobbi caterwauling the pop hit "What The World Needs Now Is Love," leaving Barney 0 for two in his quest to have an affair.

Barney's Last Shot

Barney gets one last opportunity to have an affair when his friend’s wife, Jeanette, comes on to him at a get-together. So once again he makes arrangements to meet at his mother’s apartment. When Barney is making preparations for the afternoon tryst with Jeanette, there is clearly something different about him. There’s a new confidence about him, a swagger in his stride that wasn’t there before. This time around Barney’s ready to get down to business. When Jeanette arrives at the apartment, she’s completely different from when they talked earlier. She’s tightly clutching her purse, and Barney has to coax her to even step inside the apartment; and he has an equally hard time in getting her to sit down. It’s just another example of Barney’s dumb luck. When he’s ready to get down to business, he gets someone like Jeanette who’s afraid to even sit down.

Jeanette suffers from severe depression due to her husband Mel’s infidelities. The only reason she came on to Barney was to get back at her husband. For nearly the entire afternoon, she’s either sobbing uncontrollably or popping antidepressants, not exactly what Barney had in mind. When Jeanette finally stops crying, the two have a philosophical discussion about life and death, which leaves Barney almost as depressed as Jeanette. That’s strike three for Barney, and he resigns himself to the fact that he’s not cut out to be a player, so he calls his wife to set up a rendezvous with her at his mother’s apartment.

The encounter with Barney and Jeanette is probably the weakest part of the film. While funny, it doesn’t pack the same comedic wallop as the others. The preceding encounters each had a number of moments that were flat-out hilarious. The scenes with Jeanette were merely funny. However, ReneĆ© Taylor gives a great performance as the clinically depressed Jeanette.

Drawbacks Of The Film

One of the few drawbacks of this film is that some of the speeches ran on a bit too long, which gave it a stagy feel at some points. It probably would have been a good idea if Simon had trimmed some of them down a bit, because what works on stage doesn't always translate well on screen. However, the many great moments more than make up for this. Also, even with the male-pattern-baldness makeup and wig, Arkin still looked too young for the role. He was a youngish 38 when the film was made and looked nearly ten years younger than the 45-year-old character he was playing. Nonetheless, he delivered an amazing and convincing performance as the hapless Barney Cashman, one of his best and most memorable roles.

Last of the Red Hot Lovers at Amazon

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