duganIn the 1960s to the ‘80s, Neil Simon wrote a string of unique and thoughtful comedies. The Goodbye Girl. Barefoot in the Park. The Odd Couple. His plays and films are filled with witty, rapid-fire dialogue, real characters and an acerbic understanding of working class life. Simon and his works have garnered well-deserved praise over the years, but one film in particular was an inexplicable failure: Max Dugan Returns. Released in 1983 and sandwiched between the lesser-known I Ought to Be in Pictures and The Lonely Guy, the film marked Marsha Mason’s sixth and final pairing with Simon and introduced audiences to Matthew Broderick debuting his overly confessional teenager shtick. Max Dugan Returns falls into the category of Simon’s light comedy, fueled by a more carefree spirit rather than serious drama.

By the time of Max Dugan Returns’s release, Simon had already earned four Oscar nominations for his screenwriting. The third and final collaboration with director Herbert Ross, the film sees the continuation of Simon’s favored subject matter: everyday, blue collar families. Simon’s writing manages to combine the seriousness of their struggles with a blend of comedy and wisecracks. To distill Simon’s voice into one neatly packaged description is difficult but best characterized as a strikingly realistic portrayal of the everyday dramas and foibles of imperfect characters so real that the only thing keeping his films from being painful dramas is the infusion of humor.

At the center of Max Dugan Returns is a single mother, Nora (Marsha Mason), and her teenage son, Michael (Matthew Broderick), struggling to make ends meet on her teacher’s salary. They live in a rented ramshackle house and rely on a decidedly unreliable car to get to and from school. On the opening morning of the film, Nora’s car is stolen and Brian Costello (Donald Sutherland), a police officer with a literary bent, comes to her aid. At seemingly the perfect moment – a low point for Nora and Michael – her estranged, ex-con father, Max Dugan (Jason Robards) shows up on their doorstep with a briefcase full of money to shower upon them. Ashamed of her father’s criminal past, Nora refuses to accept any part of the money and, as long as he stays with them, won’t allow him to tell Michael that he is his grandfather, forcing him instead to go by the assumed name of Mr. Parker. Not one to be rejected lightly, Max decides to lavish his money on Nora and Michael in the form of gifts: a new car, kitchen appliances, stereos, etc. The only problem is Nora’s fawning Officer Costello who grows more and more suspicious as the gifts pile up.

Apart from Simon’s charming script, the film benefits from its all-star cast, especially Mason, Robards and Sutherland. At this point, Mason was adept when it came to Simon’s struggling female characters. And Broderick, who had been hand-picked by Simon for stage roles in his Eugene Trilogy, plays up his on-screen talents, giving audiences a glimpse into the roles that would define his career. The glue that holds the film together, though, is Robards as the simultaneously endearing, troublesome and pitiable Max Dugan. And Sutherland’s turn alone is good reason to see the film. His cop-with-a-love-for-Joyce is trademark Simon and Sutherland mines the role’s rugged charm for all it’s worth while also adding an element of tension to the situation with Max’s extravagant gifts.

Of Simon’s films, Max Dugan Returns leans toward the lighthearted. The answer to Nora and Michael’s problems lands on their doorstep unprompted. The only conflict in the film is essentially Nora’s unwillingness to accept dirty money – as well as her father’s apology – as Officer Costello’s suspicions mostly amount to just a bit of snooping. All told, Max Dugan Returns is about a well-timed financial miracle, and as such, it’s true, the film doesn’t necessarily carry the same emotional weight of Simon’s other films about marital troubles or infidelity. But by the same token, nothing truly sets this film apart from The Odd Couple in terms of merit. It’s a humorous and insightful play on the unexpected windfall that should resonate as much now as it did in 1983, if not moreso.

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