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'Biloxi Blues'

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 25, 1988


Mike Nichols
Matthew Broderick;
Christopher Walken;
Matt Mulhern;
Casey Siemaszko

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Neil Simon's humor marks the spot where Jewish angst and dinner theater come together, the kind of easy-listening comedy that has made him America's most popular playwright. With "Biloxi Blues," the master of glib nostalgia becomes an honest humorist, a mellow autobio- grapher in an endearing adaptation of his Broadway play.

It is a reverie of revelry and lost virginity, a wartime sequel to the disastrously adapted "Brighton Beach Memoirs." Set in 1943, this boot-camp diary is narrated by Simon's alter ego Eugene Morris Jerome (Matthew Broderick), the embryonic playwright in Dixieland. On the troop train south, Eugene recoils from the horny, hungry, hell-bent, smelly recruits. "It was hard to believe these guys had mothers and fathers who worried about them," he says of the group, the stock ethnic assortment bound to skirmish their ways into each other's hearts.

The terrain is familiar, with its "'ten-huts" and powdered eggs, its golden-hearted harlot and insane drill sergeant. But the perspective is a little different.

Eugene is a sweet-natured iconoclast, an adolescent who comes of age as an artist -- and trite as it may sound, the military also makes him a man.

His friend Epstein (Corey Parker), a stubborn Jewish intellectual, sets an example, refusing to give up his ideals despite persecution from the other GIs. "Once you start compromising your thoughts, you're a candidate for mediocrity," he warns. The line is a turning point for Eugene.

Epstein objects conscientiously to the Army's training practices and foolishly, single-handedly tries to change them by butting heads with Merwin J. Toomey, a slightly deranged drill sergeant with a plate in his head. Eugene is caught in the cross fire when Toomey threatens both their lives. It's a case of "Full Metal Jacket" with schmaltz, an odd twist that shows there is risk in Simon's repertoire.

Cast as Toomey, Christopher Walken wobbles precariously between madness and stability, like a grenade without its pin. He's an intriguing choice, a DI who seldom raises his voice, a welcome change from the "your-mother-wore-combat-boots" type. Except for Epstein and the racist Polish guy who eats like a goat, the other boys blend into a khaki mush. There's also a memorable performance by Park Overall, who reprises her stage role of the earthy, whiskey-voiced prostitute who teaches Eugene a thing or two.

Of course, success or failure rests almost entirely with Broderick, who is irresistible in the role he also played on stage in both "Brighton Beach Memoirs" and "Biloxi Blues." He practically is Eugene by now, completely comfortable with the character and a master of talking to himself. He gives us a wide-eyed soldier boy who's a captivating cross between Charlie Sheen and Henny Youngman, a foxhole vaudevillian.

And he looks as if he stepped out of a Norman Rockwell. The look suited the romantic vision of director Mike Nichols, who is making his first film with Simon, though they have worked together on four plays. Nichols wanted to capture the ingenuousness of the '40s, when America had wide eyes, rosy cheeks and a good cause. "It was one of your better wars," Eugene recalls. "We liked the songs. We liked the uniforms. We liked that everybody liked us."

Sometimes, as in the epilogue, Eugene gets a little sappy -- Simon couldn't stop himself entirely -- and sometimes the scenes seem as disconnected as a boy's game of GI Joe. There are also fallow spells and sugary interludes, but overall Nichols, Simon and especially Broderick find fresh threads in the old fatigues.

Biloxi Blues, at area theaters, is rated PG-13 for vulgarities.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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