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'The Sunshine Boys': 'All the Men & Women Merely Players'
By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic
11:19AM / Friday, July 03, 2020
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I wish that I were reviewing one of the half-dozen movies certain to be made when this pox upon our house is no more. But until that glorious return to normality has us resuming all the simple joys of life we take for granted, like going to the movies, I'll be retro-reviewing and thereby sharing with you the films that I've come to treasure over the years, most of which can probably be retrieved from one of the movie streaming services. It is my fondest hope that I've barely put a dent into this trove when they let the likes of me back into the Bijou.

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I can't review Herbert Ross' perfect film adaptation of Neil Simon's "The Sunshine Boys" (1975) without thinking about and acknowledging all that I learned about comedy from my college dormmate Tom Clinton Jr., now Dr. Thomas Clinton. Forever taking a comedy writer's correspondence course — it seemed he was on the "Characterization" chapter for at least two semesters — he would regularly pop into my room to regale me of the latest bit of shtick he had gleaned from his zealously dedicated study of what tickles the funny bone.
 
"So, these two guys meet on the street. Guy One says to Guy Two, 'Didn't I meet you in Chicago?'
Guy Two says, 'I've never been in Chicago.'
Guy One says, 'Y'know, come to think of it, I've never been in Chicago, either.'
'Yeah,' concludes Guy Two, 'It must have been two other guys.'"
 
Yes, it's funny. But Dr. Clinton, a student of what makes Sammy run and John Doe laugh, could tell you exactly why it's funny.
 
We oft pondered the question deep into the evening, me glomming by cordial invite one of the several Variety Pack boxes of cereal adorning his windowsill that originally occasioned my entree. From the early roots of court-jestering to reaching up from your racial and/or immigrant background through standup comedy, and everything in between, we tried to cover it all, and in the bargain mulled the span of the human condition.
 
Call it a friendship through the development of mutual admiration and interests. And happily, it has never been problematic. Not like the equally long-running relationship between Walter Matthau's Willy Clark and George Burns' Al Lewis, the famed Vaudevillian duo glued together by the provocative art and science of humor.
 
Fact is, the central joke in the hilariously conceived "The Sunshine Boys," Simon's adulating homage to his progenitors, revolves around the question of whether or not Willy and Al, recognized as the best the Golden Age of comedy had to offer, were indeed friends. They certainly don't seem to be when first we make their acquaintance. They were teamed for 43 years before Al decided to call it a career. Willy never forgave him, and of late, through the efforts of his nephew/agent, Ben, has been trying to resuscitate his career by working in commercials
 
Willy explains to Richard Benjamin's forever flustered Ben, who's trying to get the pair to reunite for a lucrative, one-shot revival on a network variety show, "We broke up 11 years ago; I haven't spoken to him in 12 years."
 
He seethes with the afflictive bug of showbiz, still living in the midtown hotel he has occupied for decades, albeit in a smaller room, his digs flush with the memorabilia of one immersed in the smell of the greasepaint — the roar of the crowd. "He retired in the middle of my career," wails Willy.
 
Al isn't quite as vehement in his feelings, explaining to Ben when the latter visits him at his daughter's house in New Jersey, where he enjoys afternoon naps and treating his little niece and nephew to tales of the stage, "I don't hate Willy. I just can't stand him."
 
Recently turned down to do a potato chip commercial for vociferously making it known he didn't think the name of the chips, Frumpies, was funny, Willy is willing to do the CBS special provided Al doesn't poke him in the chest, a sore point that has festered for years. And while Al isn't especially interested in a return to the boards, the thought of adding to the niece and nephew's college fund pleases him.
 
The first powwow to discuss the classic Doctor's Sketch they'd recreate on TV takes place in Willy's hotel room. If there is a funnier, more lickety-split volley of adlibs, puns, double-entendres and every other comic mechanism that we are treated to here, I cannot call it to mind.
 
It is the template for the thrust and parry of humorous thought, the holy grail of farcical repartee. I'd love to rattle off a few, but don't want to ruin it. But oh well, you twisted my arm … just one:
 
Willy: You know, Sol Burton died?
Al: Go on…Who's Sol Burton?
Willy: You don't remember Sol Burton?
Al: Oh yes. The manager from the Belasco.
Willy: That was Sol Bernstein.
Al: Not Sol Bernstein. Sol Burton was the manager from the Belasco.
Willy: Sol Bernstein was the manager from the Belasco, and it wasn't the Belasco, it was the
Morosco.
Al: Sid Weinstein was the manager from the Morosco. Sol Burton was the manager from the
Belasco. Sol Bernstein I don't know who the hell was.
 
They go back and forth like that, and finally:
 
Al: Oh, that Sol Burton … he died?
Willy: Last week.
Al: Where?
Willy: In "Variety."
 
A nostalgic and loving peek into the whys, wherefores and wiles of a lifelong relationship, "The Sunshine Boys" imparts a golden glow that will have you rolling and sighing in the aisles. And if you don't have aisles, the couch will do.
 
"The Sunshine Boys," rated PG, is an MGM release directed by Herbert Ross and stars George Burns, Walter Matthau and Richard Benjamin. Running time: 111 minutes
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