Three years later, Ross directed his first big screen adaption of a Neil Simon play (He did it twice more), in "The Sunshine Boys". The academy-award nominated screenplay was adapted by Simon from one of his most lovable plays, dealing with the attempts of a young actors' agent (Richard Benjamin) to re-unite his uncle, veteran vaudevillian Willy Clark (an academy award nominee for best actor part, played by Walter Matthau) with his ageing partner Al Lewis (a comeback part for George Burns which got him a best supporting actor academy award). Of course, the two don't talk to each other, and hate each other's guts ("I don't hate him, I just can't stand him"). The attempts to bring the two together brought some truly classic scenes from both actors. Matthau, 55 years old at the time of filming, played a perfect 73 years old grumpy Clark, and Burns...well, the 79 years old actor gave the role of his life. Ross' expertise in staging comedy routines came to full bloom in this hit comedy, and the perfect casting together with Simon's snappy dialougues fitting so well with the whole cast, made it clear: This is the ultimate "Sunshine Boys", it can never get any better than this.
Twenty years after the Ross adaption, Simon rewrote his classic play, this time -- for Television. The need for another screen adaption of the play, doubtful as it may be after the 1975 version, could only lie in casting decisions. "The Sunshine Boys" is all about casting, an underrated art form; The 1975 version accentuated Simon's point in the play. It should not surprise anybody that the 1995 version of "Boys" offers, yet again, a delicious cast. Not only that, it comes full circle, bringing Woody Allen to star in a role His long-time director, Herbert Ross, made an oscar role for one of Allen's comic heroes, George Burns.
68 years old TV legend Peter Falk (Willy Clark) opposite 60 years old TV newcomer (as an actor) Woody Allen (Al Lewis)- could TV zealots ask for more? and There IS more: Sarah Jessica Parker as the agent, and Whoopi Goldberg in a delightful Cameo.
The re-written script is very much updated. The Lewis part was "Allenized", and many of the lines resemble Allen's own comdeic style ("-You play Nintendo? -Not well. I got a five year old kid comes in twice a week to teach me"; "-...you still look so young! -Thank you. I lost ten years in the eight years I havn't seen him"). Allen's Lewis is much more of a hypochondriac and not at all senile (thus wisely using Allen's alert on-screen persona , as opposed to Burns'). Allen, aware of his very limited capabilities as an actors' actor, plays along with the updated Lewis and thankfully never tries to resurrect Burns. One can't help but wonder what was Allen's input to the final dialougues (in his films, Allen's scripts are usually just "guidlines" to his cast).
Falk, on the other hand, plays a very straightforward Clark, with many Matthau schticks. This is not working all the time, and Falk's inexperience as a comic is sometimes disturbing. The apparent weakness of a non-natural comic in the Clark role was probably considered by Simon, who abandoned the whole "Doctor's Sketch" in favour of a short and relatively unfunny routine casting both actros as clowns trying to cheer up a sick child. Putting Falk in a more "sentimental" enviroment is obviously an attempt to "fine tune" the play in accordance with available talent. All in all, this part of the adaption is a let-down.
Indeed, John Erman's directorial style is pure TV, relying on shorter episodical segments and small scale scenes. The hysterical Richard Benjamin, a comic part in the Ross film, is replaced with a very relaxed Sarah jessica Parker, giving a solid performance almost without raising her voice.
In itself, "The Sunshine Boys" 1995 is very good. It makes 85 minutes of good TV, often very funny, sometimes even hilarious. It's allways a joy to see great actors sharing the screen, especially with a near perfect screenplay. Fans of the original have a lot to look forward to- many many new lines and jokes, which are not inferior to the original. But for 106 minutes of bellyaching laughter, please refer to Ross' version.
Allen fans can embrace this surprising off-beat project (from the Allen viewpoint) which shows yet again Allen the great comedian. It's much much better than his similiarly surprising role on "Scenes from a Mall". The atmosphere of stage comedians' world sits well with Allen, a natural stand-up comic, and unlike Falk he does not need a reference in order to perform the task. He does it in his own unique style, and even though it's more of an Alvy Singer than an Al Lewis, viewers should and will live with that.
Allen probably loved the original if he decided to do the TV version; His sudden interest in an old broadway play about old comedians is quite typical of Allen's works in recent years. His Fascination with theatre is obvious in the recent "Manhattan murder Mystery", "Bullets over Broadway", "Mighty Aphrodite" and the re-invented "Don't drink the water". Allen's next film ,a musical, will probably carry on with that theme. Considering this, Allen's role in "Boys" should not be seen as a strange deviation from his otherwise cinematic carreer. It's a part very much in sync with where he's at right now.
All in all, "Boys" could have benefited from fitter comedians than Allen, or more natural ones than Falk. People like Billy Crystal, Robin Williams or other Saturday Night Live veterans might have been better. But it could have been so much worse. The updated script and Allen's performance are both reasons enough to watch this one.