Jason Robards excels as a fairy grandfather in a fun-loving fable called "Max Dugan Returns." In his first standout comedy role since "A Thousand Clowns," he says "diddly pooh" -- the silliest expletive ever -- and gets away with it, even gets a laugh.

His Max Dugan seems to step out from under "Finian's Rainbow" and into Venice, California, where he reunites and reshapes the lives of his abandoned daughter and her son. Dugan, a white-collar ex-con with a bad heart, has a case full of cash and a yen to spend his last months alive with his grandson (Matthew Broderick) and daughter (Marsha Mason). To make up for years in absentia, he woos them with lavish gifts -- a Mercedes-Benz for her, a batting lesson from a White Sox coach for him. The loot's hot, naturally, and so is Max, who's wanted by police and a gang of Vegas hoods.

Mason plays a scattered, impoverished schoolteacher with breezy skill. She complicates Max's last wish by taking up with big, blond detective Brian Costello. Donald Sutherland, amiable and perfectly cast as a cop with an English Lit degree, gets curious about his friend's new-found fortune.

Young Broderick is a perfect foil for them all. He's ingenuous, unremittingly teenaged. He never loses sight of his character -- a good, honest kid, the most deserving recipient of magical beneficence since Cinderella.

There are a few catches -- a stiff batting session between the Sox's Charley Lau and the boy, a motivational scene that doesn't mean much between Mason and two students who teach her the whys of family ties -- but mostly it's a feel-good film. Even the credits are cheery.

"Max Dugan Returns" marks Neil Simon's fifth collaboration with director Herbert Ross. Simon can't say it, but I can: Don't miss this one. MAX DUGAN RETURNS -- At Area Theaters.