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‘Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers’ (PG)By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 14, 1993
They're calling it "Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers." Has Simon turned into Stephen King? Or Alfred Hitchcock? Or is this for people who might confuse it with the David Lean version? Maybe it's because the film, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Lost in Yonkers," is so, uh, Simonesque, it might as well have his name in the title too.
If you like Neil Simon, this will be a rewarding experience. The movie's full of his staples, from bizarre family figures to precocious kids. The performances are also on the money. Irene Worth and Mercedes Ruehl reprise their Tony-winning, mother-and-daughter Broadway relationship with well-oiled precision. Richard Dreyfuss plays a shiftless, two-bit gangster with characteristic exuberance; and teenage newcomers Brad Stoll and Mike Damus steal their scenes with impish innocence.
But if you think Simon should spend eternity in sitcom hell, just ignore the "Yonkers" exit and head south.
When a scrap-selling job takes him south during World War II, widowed father Jack Laufer is forced to leave sons Stoll and Damus with Worth, his mother. The stick-wielding matriarch lives over her own candy store with addlebrained (don't say retarded -- she changes) daughter Ruehl. Worth has no apparent love for any of her children, including irregular visitors Dreyfuss and Susan Merson. The boys begin their 10-month sentence -- as she keeps them working, not eating -- in the candy store.
"You two want to talk," she says, as they perform their duties, "you sit down and buy something."
Other than each other, their only companions are ethereal Ruehl and, very occasionally, Dreyfuss, a petty hustler who teaches them card tricks and a street-tough swagger he calls "moxie."
Over time, the boys get to know their grandmother -- and she gets a friendlier handle on them. Meanwhile, Ruehl is pursuing emotional independence by striking up a tentative romantic relationship with learning-disabled movie usher David Strathairn. This latter affair eventually pries open the family's skeleton closet.
"Yonkers," directed by Martha ("Rambling Rose") Coolidge, has few outdoor excursions. There's little point: Neil Simon's dramas are too written, too dramatically heightened, to feel real anyway. "Yonkers"-the-movie mostly stays in and around the family home, allowing for character clashes and revelations.
Worth pumps her role with archetypal sternness. Her forbidding presence provides the movie's emotional backdrop -- although she never feels like more than an abstraction. Dreyfuss has his usual, hyper-cackling field day. He's well cast as the irrepressible Louie, on the verge of big trouble with his gangster associates.
But Ruehl and the two kids give the movie its emotional center. Ruehl, a sort of Jewish Blanche DuBois, imbues her role with wonderful nuances. Her seamless array of child-woman quirks is the kind of impaired-personality performance that sends the Oscar nomination people into a lather. But she's entertaining to watch, an effortless, natural joy.
Stoll and Damus convey the dilemma of being stuck with the European grandma from hell with wide-eyed credibility. If Ruehl gets most of the behavior tics, they get the good lines. In defense of Simon, whose plays have launched a billion dinner-theater productions, his (often disparagingly) so-called one-liners spring naturally from their characters. Read them alone and they're not funny. Hear them in context and they are. At one point, when their father asks if Aunt Bella is "all right," the two boys look at him with genuine bewilderment.
"How do you know when she's all right?" Stoll asks his dad.
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