Directed By: Herbert Ross
Written By: Neil Simon
Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Marsha Mason, Quinn Cummings
If there’s one thing to be learnt from Herbert Ross’ two 1978 Oscar contenders, firstly The Turning Point and now The Goodbye Girl, it’s that the director is hopelessly quixotic; a “sucker for romance” as Marsha Mason from the latter of those films would say.
Both works, in the end, prove to be defined by their schmaltzy, fantasyland conclusions, in which the characters have undergone such drastic transformations and self education that the films willingly forfeit all perceptibility in favour of idealism. Gone is the uncanny real life recognition we felt during Annie Hall. This is no criticism in and of itself, the movies after all serve many as the ultimate escape from the dreariness of reality, plus it’s charming in a sense. Ross loves his characters undyingly, warts and all. But it also gives his films an air of contrivance and over-familiarity.
The schmaltz was better earned in The Turning Point, and the destination was better disguised under the fieriness of the central characters. But The Goodbye Girl is tragically predictable, sheer rom-com formula in which we successfully premeditate the entire narrative at a breakneck speed.
We begin mapping the film upon meeting our first two characters, Paula (played by Mason), and her precocious, straight-shooting 10 year old Lucy (Quinn Cummings). The down on their luck duo arrive at their Manhattan residence, a cosy apartment, to find that Paula’s married boyfriend and apartment owner Tony, has dropped them in favour of a movie role in Italy. This is heart breaking business as usual for Paula, hence the movie’s title. And the movie itself is business as usual, so where’s our love interest for Paula to inevitably clash with, only to later realise her soul mate has been staring her in the face this whole time? Well as a blessing in disguise, Tony subleased the apartment on his way out to another aspiring actor, the brilliantly eccentric Eliot Garfield (Richard Dreyfuss). The rain-soaked, sharp tongued Eliot unlocks his new door to find the equally sharp tongued Paula who, with a ten year old girl to think about, isn’t about to make herself homeless for another jerk actor. We’re at an impasse then, legally the apartment is Eliot’s, but morally it’s Paula and Lucy’s. So the trio resolve to coexist and live together, where barbs can be thrown, sparks can fly, and credits can eventually roll.
With nothing in the way of intrigue, the film’s fight for interest is left to the performers and their chemistry. Thankfully they make a good fist of it. Mason is tasked with the film’s driest and most abrasive character. Paula doesn’t get to demonstrate enough of her upside, and when she does it’s too sudden. She’s weepy and grumpy, but her affection for her daughter is always palpable and Mason finds sympathy through her character’s weary doggedness.
Cummings threatens to steal the show as the cute youngster who sees the world with a clarity that no adult ever could. She’s the tougher of the mother/daughter tandem and supplies the film’s best laughs with her profane, make-no-bones-about-it speech. She’s also loving, and sees the good in people long before her mother. It’s her relationship with Dreyfuss that proves the film’s most entertaining.
Speaking of Dreyfuss, the day belongs to him. He would win Best Actor for his performance, the youngest recipient ever at the time, playing the film’s most multifaceted creation, a wisecracking, pretentious, thespian hipster with a heart of gold and charisma to burn. One wonders where the film might have ended up if we didn’t want the best for Eliot. But we do wind up caring, and this is the salient point.
Banality be damned, Ross, aided greatly by Neil Simon’s razor like one liners, good pacing and the vibrancy of his cast, finds a charming amiability. Against our better judgment, with a warm personality and a touch of flair, we are given reason for involvement.
Things continue to unfold like clockwork as the movie wears on, complete with the obligatory last burst of friction between the lovers, thrown in for dramatic kosher as if to pretend this whole journey wasn’t fatalistically wholesome from the beginning. As a result of the template storytelling, the film never is permitted to be anything more than fleetingly affecting. We’re always three steps ahead of the action, but a little bit of colour means we do at least go along with it.