Rewind, Review, and Re-Rate: ‘The Sunshine Boys’: One of Neil Simon’s Numerous Odd Couples

May 15, 2020 Updated: May 15, 2020

PG | | Comedy | 6 November 1975 (USA)

I just bought “The Sunshine Boys” on iTunes for $6.99, which is about what we paid to see it in the theaters back in 1976. I immediately started hollering with laughter all over again. It’s as good as it ever was. OK, almost. Walter Matthau was a comedic genius, one of the world’s funniest clowns, and George Burns was a straight man for the ages, having had years of practice playing straight man to his wife in “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show.”

Grumpy Old Men

“Grumpy Old Men” is another movie in which Matthau will slay you with laughter—he specialized in playing grumpy old men—but Matthau’s original two grumpy old men roles were Oscar Madison in “The Odd Couple” and Willy Clark in “The Sunshine Boys.”

The film’s an homage to vaudeville; it’s about the feisty reunion fireworks of a once-famous comedy duo, who now hate each other. For 50 years, Al Lewis (George Burns) and Willy Clark (Walter Matthau) had been one of the greatest vaudeville comedy teams ever. They retired 11 years ago, and it’s been 12 years since they’ve actually spoken.

Clark hates Lewis’s guts for quitting the act on him before he felt ready, and Lewis, while he doesn’t hate his erstwhile partner, can’t stand Clark because of his giant ego and the fact that he’s incredibly annoying to work with. Nonetheless, they reluctantly agree to reunite for a TV special, at the behest of Clark’s agent Ben (Richard Benjamin), who is also Clark’s long-suffering nephew.

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Ben (Richard Benjamin, L) scolds his uncle Willy Clark (Walter Matthau) in “The Sunshine Boys.” (MGM)

The film opens in 1970s Time Square, with the semi-retired, semi-senile Clark headed to a TV commercial audition for potato chips. He wanders into an auto-body shop on West 43rd Street, thinking it’s the advertising agency on East 43rd; he kicks the mechanic (F. Murray Abraham) under the car and tells him to check if the commercial studio is located in the back.

“I don’t make commercials! I fix transmissions!”
“Well it wouldn’t hurt you to look, would it?!”
“East 43rd street! You want east! This is west!”
“Don’t get fresh with me, I got a few years on you before you get fresh with me!!” (Exit stage left)

The mechanic, seeing old man shoes and baggy pants under the garage door heading farther west, screams, “East! East!! The other way!!” And Willy Clark gets down on all fours to holler under the door, “I’ve lived in New York my whole life!”

Rehearsal

one old man points his finger at another old man
Al Lewis (George Burns, L) and Willy Clark (Walter Matthau) star in “The Sunshine Boys.” (MGM)

With the nostalgic TV special booked, it’s rehearsal time. Lewis and Clark meet at Clark’s disaster-messy old-man bachelor apartment on the Upper West Side (UWS) and start rehearsing sketches. A long visual gag ensues, where Clark moves the lamp over here, while Lewis moves a chair over there, and then Clark moves the chair Lewis just moved, elsewhere, while Lewis returns the lamp to its original position. This goes on for a while, until: “Wait a minute, wait a minute! What the heck are we doing? That’s not the Doctor Sketch!!”

“Oh! You wanna do the Doctor Sketch? OK.” And the same senile shenanigans start up again, until: “Wait a minute, wait a minute!! That’s not the Doctor Sketch!” “Oh yeah?! Then show me the Doctor Sketch!” Clark pauses, then moves the lamp six inches to the right. “That’s the Doctor Sketch!”

Odd Couple

Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple” was incredibly successful, turned into a famous TV show, and has been firmly embedded in the American cultural lexicon as a relationship concept for half a century. Simon got a lot of mileage out of that concept, because Lewis and Clark are also an odd couple: The fastidious, Felix-like Lewis lives in New Jersey with his married daughter and dotes on his grandchildren, Wendy and Mark.

The Oscar-like Clark thinks that in his late 70s, he’s still got it, lives in an UWS hotel, and refuses to remember his nephew’s kids’ names:

“…Milly and Sidney.”
“Amanda and Michael!”
“Amanda and Sipkiss…”

One half of this vaudeville odd couple, Clark, hollers at Lewis: “From my window I see drug addicts! Car crashes! Ambulances! Jumpers from buildings! I see everything! What do you see? The lawwwn mower, and the miiilllk man.”

video cover of Sunshine boys
A video cover for “The Sunshine Boys.” (MGM)

One Joke

Yes, it’s funny—hysterical—but it hit me after all these years that “The Sunshine Boys” is a one-trick pony; it’s an entire play and movie based on the idea of encroaching dementia (both Willy’s and Al’s now-defunct short-term memories) as fodder for a hundred jokes and gags on the topic.

At age 16, that was funny. Now, when it often happens that I wander into the living room from the kitchen and can’t for the life of me remember what I went in there for, it’s still funny … but slightly less so.

Also, in the manner of Clark’s nephew, after having taken care of my dad (a curmudgeonly, divorced fine arts painter with an UWS apartment that matched the chaos of Willy Clark’s apartment, who had a similar degree of memory loss), “The Sunshine Boys” has become in some ways, entirely un-funny. Funny how perspectives change with time. If you haven’t seen “The Sunshine Boys,” though—see it. It’s very funny.

‘The Sunshine Boys’
Director: Herbert Ross
Starring: Walter Matthau, George Burns, Richard Benjamin, F. Murray Abraham, Lee Meredith, Carol Arthur, Rosetta LeNoire
Rated: PG
Running Time: 1 hour, 51 minutes
Release Date: Nov. 6, 1975
Rated: 4 stars out of 5

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch