A Prodigal Father story from Neil Simon. Written for the screen, not a play adaptation, it has its share of forced comic moments (the Simon gag reflex working for good & evil), but it largely avoids the metallic edge of his lesser stage work at the time.* Whether from an expert cast or from Herbert Ross’s no-frills/straight-ahead direction, the jokes feel more grounded, believably attached to emotional situations. Jason Robards, in lighter form than usual, is scapegrace dad to Marsha Mason (uncomfortably blonde here). A single mom raising teenage Matthew Broderick (debuting with preternatural comic timing), her father left when she was a child. Now he’s walked back in, anxious to make up for lost time before it’s too late (he’s got a bum ticker), with half a mill of ill-gotten gains to lavish on her. And then there’s Donald Sutherland, the legit new guy in her life who also happens to be a police detective. (Someone gave Sutherland a perfectly awful real cop hair cut. Neat touch.) Just right in scale & sentiment, the film quickly corrects course after any wrong turns and doesn’t overplay its modest hand. It’s truly nice.
DOUBLE-BILL: *Simon & Ross must have taken lessons from what didn’t work after collaborating on a somewhat similar stage-to-screen transfer, I OUGHT TO BE IN PICTURES/’82, tinny on every level.