Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 16, 2016)
Back in 1977, Richard Dreyfuss enjoyed easily the best period of his long career. In terms of box office, he played the lead in two of the year’s four top-grossing flicks: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (#3) and The Goodbye Girl (#4). Dreyfuss also won the Best Actor Oscar for his work in Girl.
Almost 40 years later, Close Encounters remains regarded as a classic, whereas Girl largely seems to be forgotten. Though I’ve watched the Spielberg hit umpteen times over the years, I don’t think I’ve seen Girl since my parents took me to a screening back in 1977. That left me curious to sneak another peak all these decades later.
Set in New York, former dancer Paula McFadden (Marsha Mason) lives in an apartment with her pre-teen daughter Lucy (Quinn Cummings) and her married boyfriend Tony DeForrest. The abode resides in Tony’s name, and that causes problems when he suddenly nails on Paula – and subleases the residence to Elliott Garfield (Dreyfuss), an actor new to town.
Paula and Elliott bicker about who deserves to remain in the apartment but Elliott comes up with a compromise: he’ll live there with Paula and Lucy. This sets up a battle of wills and personalities as the mismatched adults vie for residential supremacy. Will love blossom in this wacky setting?
One gander at the movie’s too-revealing trailer tells you the answer to that question – not that it’s really up for debate anyway. Hollywood always loved the “meet cute”, and the “opposites attract” motif remains popular as well.
Girl takes those themes and rehashes them in a perfunctory manner. Part of the film’s problem is that it fails to develop the Paula/Elliott relationship in a particularly satisfying way. It usually feels like the characters connect because of inevitability rather than due to natural/logical causes.
The actors fail to motivate matters especially well. Though he remained famous, Dreyfuss’s career unraveled to a large degree after 1977. He’d still make the occasional semi-successful movie, but he'd never come close to the heights he hit in 1977.
Which doesn’t seem shocking, as Dreyfuss presented an awfully untraditional “leading man”. Sure, Hollywood sometimes embraced male actors without standard good looks, but Dreyfuss went to an extreme even there, partly because he seemed so much older than his actual age. Dreyfuss was still 29 when he shot Girl, but he appeared to be a good 20 years older.
Mason lacked much of a career after 1977 either, but her decline seems more related to familial relations. Successful writer Neil Simon penned Girl, and four of the five features Mason made after Girl came from Simon properties.
Then Mason and Simon split up – and Mason’s career largely evaporated along with it. Like Dreyfuss, she still worked, but Mason enjoyed very few leads post-Simon, and she essentially disappeared from the public eye.
I can’t claim to shed any tears about that, as even when I was a kid, I thought Mason seemed annoying. Girl reminds me why, as she shows a somewhat startling lack of talent, all while she maintains a consistently unlikable personality.
Granted, I can’t pin all of that on Mason, as she didn’t write the script. Simon forces Paula to come across as unpleasant for much of the film – especially during the first act – and Mason can’t overcome the screenplay’s choices.
However, even when the movie allows Paula to seem more well-rounded, Mason continues to play the part as abrasive and unappealing. We see her as whiny, emotional and borderline cruel, especially when she lies to Elliott at the movie’s start.
I get it: Paula has been done wrong by the sleazy Tony, so we can’t expect her to be pleasant and cheerful when Elliott literally arrives on her door. However, she goes out of her way to be nasty toward him, a guy who got screwed over by Tony almost as much as she.
From there, matters don’t improve. We dislike Paula from minute one and the film’s attempts to redeem her don’t succeed – again, largely because Mason fails to play Paula as a person worth redemption. Mason maintains two modes: bitchy and whiny. Those don’t bode well for the role’s emotional development – it’s no wonder her career flopped when her husband no longer gave her work.
While I feel much greater appreciation for Dreyfuss’s ample talents, Girl doesn’t display his best work. Close Encounters may have been a sci-fi fantasy, but Dreyfuss’s Roy Neary allowed for a much greater range of human emotions and development than his “real world” Elliott.
Which gets back to Simon’s lackluster screenplay, as the actors find themselves stuck with the simplistic roles written for them. Dreyfuss manages to suck more life out of Elliott than Mason does with Paula, but not by a huge margin.
That’s because Girl encourages Dreyfuss to play up his more annoying characteristics. Elliott actually shows some similarities with Matt Hooper from Jaws, but Dreyfuss manages a more well-rounded, human feel in the 1975 classic – Matt could be an overbearing brat, but he showed real strengths as well.
Few such graces accompany Elliott. Like Paula, we’re supposed to accept his positive traits on faith, as the film doesn’t display these well. Instead, it leaves Elliott as largely abrasive and annoying. By default, he’s more likable than Paula, but so is root canal surgery.
Then-10-year-old Cummings comes across best of the bunch – ironic since I hated her at the time. Cummings and I were – and still are! – exactly the same age, but I found her “precocious kid” routine to seem smarmy and irritating.
Maybe Cummings’ Lucy hit too close to home – God knows I was pretty smarmy, irritating and precocious at 10 – but she seems much less annoying now. Cummings plays Lucy’s insouciance better than I thought and gives the movie its best injection of humanity.
Too bad that’s not enough, as the rest of the movie flops. The Goodbye Girl received lots of praise in 1977 but almost 40 years later, I find it tough to fathom why. The movie seems trite, contrived and generally weak.