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‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’

By Paul Attanasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 25, 1986


Gene Saks
Jonathan Silverman;
Blythe Danner;
Bob Dishy;
Brian Brillinger;
Stacey Glick;
Judith Ivey;
Lisa Waltz
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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"Brighton Beach Memoirs" (written by Neil Simon from his hit play) is a regularly funny and at times affecting movie that captures, if not always successfully, the kind of back-and-forth of any ordinary family. And what makes it most powerful, perhaps, is the knowledge that the family is, at least in part, drawn from Simon's own.

As meticulously recreated by production designer Stuart Wurtzel, the time and place of "Brighton Beach Memoirs" is unmistakably Brooklyn, 1937. Eugene Jerome (Jonathan Silverman) dreams of becoming the center fielder for the New York Yankees or, failing that, a writer. But mostly, he dreams about his cousin Nora (Lisa Waltz), who along with her widowed mother Blanche (Judith Ivey), lives in the Jeromes' house. In fact, Eugene dreams about all women, from the neighbor he spies on to the naked Africans in National Geographic, as Simon interweaves his lust as a running gag.

But laughter is not entirely what the Jerome household is about. Eugene's mother Kate (Blythe Danner), filled with a bullying sort of love, endlessly nags, worries about and criticizes her brood; his father Jack (Bob Dishy) is good natured but weak. And when Jack becomes ill, it only brings out the worst in Kate and Stanley (Brian Drillinger), Eugene's older brother.

The Jerome family is Jewish, and much of the pleasure of "Brighton Beach Memoirs" comes from the way Simon mines specific Jewish types (like the martyred Jewish mother), and the effortless rat-a-tat of Borscht Belt wisecracks. But as a play, "Brighton Beach" was avowedly an effort by Simon to get beyond mere jokiness; and while those efforts here still seem tentative, the movie touches a level of emotion we all share.

What you feel in "Brighton Beach Memoirs" is the psychological interchange of a family, long the richest vein of American playwrights, from O'Neill to Shepard. You see how a weak man affects a willful woman, and how that woman's frustrations are visited upon her children. Or how the way parents treat two sisters -- one pretty, one the workhorse -- pursues them into middle age. Or how someone may be shielded by the responsibilities assumed by an older brother.

In other words, you get a story with a beginning, middle and end, characters who change through the course of the drama, and funny dialogue that shapes those characters -- elements that are admittedly minimal, but that have become so rare that you experience "Brighton Beach Memoirs" like a prisoner taking his first walk as a free man. And Simon's craftsmanship is matched by the work of the crew, particularly the breathable camera movement and the gorgeous, painterly lighting effects of cinematographer John Bailey.

"Brighton Beach" fails, however, to cohere or pack the punch that it might have, and the fault lies mostly with the uneven cast that director Gene Saks (who directed "Brighton Beach" on Broadway) has assembled. Waltz and Drillinger, who appeared in one or another of "Brighton Beach's" stage incarnations, don't fully adapt their technique to the screen -- they sometimes seem unfocused. Dishy is similarly blurred, as if the vagaries of Eugene's own memories had crept into his performance. Silverman has a good style for delivering a joke, and for someone his age, he succeeds remarkably well at carrying the center of a movie; but he gives you less sense of the Eugene Jerome to come than you might want.

The biggest problem, though, comes with the most difficult role. Kate is a bitter woman, less than thoroughly likable; yet she is, after all, Eugene's mother, and in their relationship lies the heart of the movie. Playing as difficult an emotion as a love that oppresses, and all the ambiguities that implies, is a huge challenge, and the usually excellent Danner fails miserably. An actress who might be more comfortably cast in a John Cheever story, Danner isn't believable for a second as a self-dramatizing, guilt-inflicting Jewish mother.

Some have suggested that Saks should have cast Jews as Jews; but if Danner would lead you to believe that proposition, Ivey emphatically disproves it. As Blanche, she captures not simply the accent, but the walk, the gestures, the habit of being -- as she stammers, and suffers, and resurrects her shredded pride, Ivey is Blanche, with a thickness of detail that is astonishing. Her performance is only the best reason to see a movie that, if nothing else, always communicates a knowledge of what a movie should be.

"Brighton Beach Memoirs" is rated PG-13 and contains profanity and some mild sexual themes.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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