Plot: What’s it about?
“The Sunshine Boys” was a complete surprise and an absolute joy to watch. I loved every moment of this film, from the opening credits to the final scene. This is the story of two legendary vaudevillian actors teaming up for one last gig. The catch, of course, is that they can’t stand each other, and have nurtured their rivalry for forty-three hilariously painful years. Beyond that initial setup, there isn’t much of a plot in the traditional sense to be found in this picture, as there really is no narrative thrust to be found in what essentially amounts to a two-hour verbal jousting match between Al Lewis (George Burns) and Willy Clark (Walter Matthau). On the other hand, what you do have here is pitch perfect in every sense. From the moment these two characters get together, it’s absolutely impossible not to fall in love with their sardonic wit and undeniably classic exchanges. Burns won an Academy Award for his performance, and it’s well-earned, although Matthau has got to get props from me for his work here. I think I can safely say that a film like this would have never worked to this degree unless both of the leads had been brilliant. They are.
Though familiar with many of their respective films, I’d never had the privilege of seeing these two actors work together before “The Sunshine Boys”. The result is a remarkable pairing that could only have happened once in a lifetime, and it’s no exaggeration to say that this film is worth watching for the performances alone. This is a character-driven piece that plays just as well today as I imagine it must have back in 1975, with more biting humor and genuine laughs in the first few minutes than most comedies can offer up in two hours. If it seems that I’m focusing exclusively on the two leads, it’s because this movie is truly little more than an excuse to play them off one another. But when the end results work this well and remain this endearing over thirty years later, who can argue with the means? What is most surprising is how well these characters are explored and, by the end of the picture, exposed as the people they really are. Some characters are merely scripted into life, but Burns and Matthau make certain that there is more than a pen at work here. These two creations breathe with a life that makes me long for a way out of twenty-first century stylistic purgatory.
Possibly the most impressive aspect of this film is the way it pulls you in right from the start. I was never bored for a moment, and I found myself more involved with these characters and their relationship with each other than with anything else the film could have possibly thrown at me. In a sense, watching this movie is a freeing experience. You don’t have to worry about inconsequential subplots and needless exposition while viewing it, and I think it’s all the richer for its refusal to give us any kind of definite context. Instead, it wisely allows the onscreen chemistry to do all the talking and fill in the blanks. I found myself visualizing scenarios from this duo’s earlier career and shaking my head at the actors’ seemingly effortless portrayals – all the while listening to every syllable of their incessant bickering and enjoying the movie immensely. This is a sweet-hearted film masquerading as a feature-length squabble, and it’s also one of the most unexpectedly rewarding experiences I’ve had with a movie in quite some time. This is a film for anyone who appreciates the art of comedy, the quality of a great script, and the magic that can still be found in that small space between two legendary actors going head to head. This release garners my highest recommendation.
Video: How does it look?
The anamorphically enhanced 1.85:1 video presentation isn’t going to turn any heads, but it is a bit better than I had anticipated for a film of this intage. Colors are a bit washed out and there is a pervading soft nature to the film on this release that can at times be a bit distracting in its persistence and everity, but thankfully, that’s where the negatives end (aside from one minor quibble that I’ll get into in a moment). There is no edge-enhancement, ompression problems, shimmering, or contrast problems that I noticed, although the washed-out color could have admittedly made the latter difficult to iscern. Black levels are average (if not spectacular), and detail level is comparable, especially given the soft nature of the presentation. There is oneother issue with the video that seems to me to be analog noise, possibly due to a laserdisc transfer port. There’s a blue halo on objects and even people in certain scenes. Anyone who remembers VHS tapes (it feels good to say it like that) knows the drdreaded blue halo. It’s what happens after the first generation of recording and, while it doesn’t take you out of the movie for any length of time, it is a bit off-putting, and it’s a shame that it showed up on what is an otherwise decent presentation. Subtitles are available in English, French, and Spanish.
Audio: How does it sound?
Presented in Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono, the audio track is surprisingly good for what it is. This is naturally a dialogue-driven picture, and the mono track does a fine job of accentuating what’s going on onscreen without detracting from the experience with shrill highs or a plugged-up mid range. This mix will impress you through its subtlety if you allow it to, and given the limited range inherent to this kind of a format, I was not at all disappointed with the audio presentation here. A stereo mix may have opened things up a bit more and felt a little more dynamically pleasing, but again, this is primarily a character sketch, and this mix does what it needs to do and does it well. A French audio track is also available.
Supplements: What are the extras?
First up on the extras front is the audio commentary by supporting actor Richard Benjamin, who plays Matthau’s long-suffering nephew in the film. This track didn’t do much for me to be honest. It’s one of those commentaries that just seem to drone on and on about the brilliance of the production, the writing, and the actors without giving us any insight into the actual filmmaking process or even the occasional amusing anecdote to permeate the monotony. More disappointing, Benjamin apparently forgets why he is watching the film for long stretches of time, equating to silence on our end that occurs all too frequently. This is the kind of track that makes you wonder if anyone was actually in the room with the man or if he watched the film in a vacuum. Had someone else been there, I have to imagine that Benjamin would have received at least a few nudges and maybe even a muffled cough or two to remind him to speak. The vintage featurette “The Lion Roars Again” fares a bit better, if only for its historical value to this release. There’s plenty of behind-the-scenes footage of what was MGM back in the day. Only part of this featurette focuses on “The Sunshine Boys”, but the part that does is worthwhile, with plenty of choice footage of the stars in candid moments. A make-up test for Jack Benny and Walter Matthau (video only) is included, as is Phil Silvers’ screen test for the film. Also included is the original theatrical trailer, which is a virtual documentary in and of itself. “The Sunshine Boys” is Well worth checking out.