"Max Dugan Returns" labors under the typical limitations of a Neil Simon text. Neither the plot nor the characters can overcome their synthetic birthrights, and just about everyone volleys dialogue a thousand times more glib than it needs to be. Nevertheless, this latest renewal of Simon's filmmaking partnerships with director Herbert Ross and leading lady Marsha Mason looks like a crowd-pleaser to me, and it's not the sort of crowd-pleasing trifle I can get sincerely indignant about.
Opening today at area theaters, "Max Dugan Returns" is a significantly sunnier outing than Simon has been treating his public to in scripts like "Only When I Laugh" or "I Ought To Be in Pictures," which struggle to find a laugh-and-a-tear way of writing about Real Problems. The refreshing thing about "Max Dugan Returns" is that the ostensible problem--accepting a sudden windfall of prosperity--is really no problem at all. Moreover, "Max Dugan Returns" is cleverly calculated to share the gratification felt by both benefactor and beneficiaries.
The benefactor is the title character, a foxy old felon played with admirable discretion by Jason Robards, contriving to relish a Santa Claus role while never seeming to overindulge the built-in coyness and adorability of it all. Max makes a shadowy entrance one night at the comfortably shabby Venice home of his widowed daughter Nora, a high school English teacher played by Mason, and her teen-age son Mike, played by a delightfully fresh-faced and adroit young actor, Matthew Broderick. Out of touch for almost 20 years, Max reveals that he wants to make amends for his neglect by helping out and getting acquainted. As a goodwill gesture, he proposes to share the fruits of his labors for the past seven years--a nest egg of $687,000 allegedly accumulated by skimming while employed as a dealer in Las Vegas. Max intimates that he may not have much time left, what with a failing ticker and the displeasure of his employers.
The complications, such as they are, arise from Nora's reluctance to accept ill-gotten gains, a scruple that is easily overwhelmed by Max's cheerfully impervious determination to be as generous as he likes, and her apprehension that the new man in her life, Brian Costello, a cop played by Donald Sutherland, will get suspicious. There's an irresistible aspect to Max's gift-giving when it takes eccentrically lavish, playful forms; for example, he hires Charley Lau to tutor Mike, a notoriously weak bat on his high school team, in the art of hitting, and stuns Nora twice in the same evening by leaving a diamond necklace on her dresser and $5,000 in "pocket money" in her purse, which slips out with shocking impact on her first date with the nice policeman.
Nora's desperate attempts to improvise plausible excuses for such telltale signs of wealth become a running gag of dubious value. Simon also overplays a winning hand by expanding Max's generosity beyond both common sense and acceptable taste. It's fun when Nora and Mike come back for the first time to find their humble home crowded with new appliances and toys, but Simon doesn't seem to know that certain appliances, like electric dishwashers, kind of have to be hooked up before they can be used, and that even a modest little Venice bungalow couldn't be totally renovated in a day.
Ross gives the script a crisp, polished presentation that helps to take some of the curse off the wrongheaded gags, but what sustains the material emotionally is the appeal of gift-giving and receiving. Robards seems to sum it up blithely when he responds to Mason's worries by remarking, "A few small pleasures! What harm can it do?" There's also a deeper, guilt-tapping source of appeal in a line delivered in absolute seriousness: "I'm not going to my grave without leaving some security for you and Mike." A more perceptive, versatile humorist might have used Max's belated solicitude for keener comic observations, since there's inevitably a double edge to such generosity. But within its strictly optimistic limits, "Max Dugan Returns" is a pleasant exercise in wish fulfillment. MAX DUGAN RETURNS, directed by Herbert Ross; written by Neil Simon; director of photography, David M. Walsh; edited by Richard Marks; music by David Shire; produced by Herbert Ross and Neil Simon for 20th Century-Fox Films. This film is rated PG. THE CAST Nora McPhee....Marsha Mason Max Dugan....Jason Robards Brian Costello....Donald Sutherland Michael McPhee....Matthew Broderick Mrs. Litke....Dody Goodman Coach Roy....Sal Viscuso Luis....Panchito Gomez