Things don’t go well when the two men meet. Old animosities quickly resurface and within moments the duo are back to squabbling. For his part, Al Lewis (Allen), is willing to give things a shot for old time’s sake, but it’s going to take something unexpected to happen before the bickering partners might finally begin to appreciate what they mean to each other.
The Sunshine Boys, based on a stage play by legendary US comedy writer Neil Simon (The Odd Couple, Barefoot in the Park) had already been translated into a successful movie starring George Burns and Walter Matthau twenty-one years before Peter Falk and Woody Allen were brought together for this 1996 made-for-TV version. The pairing of Allen and Falk was undoubtedly a coup (Allen had originally been asked to direct the 1975 version, but declined) and both actors acquit themselves beautifully in the roles, but this version never quite escapes the shadow of its silver screen big brother. It’s hard not to listen to Falk and Allen sparring and wish you were watching Matthau and Burns instead, in fact many of Falk’s line readings are dead-on reminiscent of Matthau even though he isn’t playing the Matthau character.
The other issue – which is shared by both versions – is that The Sunshine Boys never truly escapes its theatrical roots. Apart from an opening scene when Willy walks to an audition and loses his way in a New York street, the remainder of the film takes place in interiors where everyone becomes a talking head, shooting off machine-gun dialogue, trying to one-up each other with insults that often raise a smile but are rarely laugh-out-loud funny. Simon’s writing is still incredibly clever but it is very much of its time, and the occasional attempt to update the script doesn’t really work apart from a nice line Allen gets about taking Nintendo lessons from a local kid. Remember, Nintendo was current in 1996. Now, that line just dates the film even further.
Still, for fans of old-fashioned buddy comedy, this is still very worth watching. Falk and Allen are at the top of their game, and it’s especially great to watch Allen play a character he hasn’t written for himself (although, playing an ex-vaudeville comedian, he still isn’t straying far from his creative roots). Sarah Jessica Parker, two years away from Sex and the City, also does well in a role that often relegates her to the job of straight man, asking the obvious questions so that Falk and Allen can deliver the punchlines, and Edie Falco, Whoopi Goldberg, Michael McKean and Liev Schreiber lend differing levels of support (Falco and Goldberg are great, McKean and Schreiber not so much). If you haven’t seen the Matthau/Burns version, you’ll enjoy this but if you have seen that version, you’ll probably find yourself pining for the original.
THE SUNSHINE BOYS / CERT: U / DIRECTOR: JOHN ERMAN / SCREENPLAY: NEIL SIMON / STARRING: WOODY ALLEN, PETER FALK, SARAH JESSICA PARKER, MICHAEL MCKEAN / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW