I loved this movie passionately the first time I saw it, which was almost 30 years ago, and I love it every single time I watch it. Certainly aspects of it have gotten more meaningful as I've gotten older. The cast, full of people I had no idea of at the age of 10, turned out to be full of some of my all-time favorite actors (William Daniels, Barbara Harris, Jason Robards...how can you go wrong?)
I think some of the reviewers here (especially the ones giving it mixed reviews) are under the impression that the viewer is supposed to view Murray as a totally sympathetic character. He's not, and I don't think he's intended to be. Murray is really fun to be around for over half the movie; you're rooting for him all the way. As Sandy says, "No wonder Nick loves it here. I'd love to live here too if I were eleven years old!" When it's really time for Murray to settle down and do something to keep Nick, he can't bring himself to do it, and his free-spirited ways start looking, to the objective viewer, shallow and irresponsible. Murray needs to grow up, and do it fast, and growing up means compromising. That's the lesson; not that Murray was right all along, but that you can't be completely free if you do in fact have something left to lose, and Murray does. But life isn't a black and white choice between happiness and unhappiness, it's a continuum, and sometimes "doing the best you can" is enough.
I found it truly interesting that, throughout the movie, Nick was what Murray describes as "a middle-aged kid," seeming older than Murray himself. At the end, when Murray grows up, Nick seems to revert. He throws a full-scale tantrum, and that's the first time in the whole movie I remembered he was actually a child. I think that's a testament to Gordon's skill as an actor.
For anyone who read/saw the play: the director didn't seem to quite "get" the point of the play, and changed the end of the first and second (or is it second/third? I don't have it in front of me) to make the end of the movie more of a downer than the play. I never quite forgave him for that. The end of the play suggested that compromises have to be made, life goes on and it can even be good. The end of the movie seems to suggest that the last scene was unsubtly a "sell-out." I disagree. But I still loved the movie.
"Getting back to reality..." "I'll only go as a tourist!"
I tried to watch this with my mother when it came out 20 years ago, and couldn't make it through. Several years later I became a Coen Bros fan and tried again. What an incredible movie! It's not up to their current standards, but the raw talent and trademark absorption with the seamy side of humanity are all there. The first time I watched it I knew it was a black comedy, but was having trouble isolating what was funny about it. The third viewing told me: this is a deadly serious movie whose plot is a screwball comedy; misidentification, misunderstandings, all the stuff that made "A Comedy of Errors" funny are in this movie. This subtlety gives the movie its creepy power.
I noticed some viewers have real trouble with the ugliness, and I have to say that I don't usually like books or movies where I can't identify with any of the characters, but the Coens are an exception. Many of their movies have the theme of stupid people doing stupid things that they think will change their lives for the better, resulting in catastrophe and the need for more stupidity and violence to try and dig themselves out of a steadily worsening situation. It's like watching a slow-motion train wreck, and I need to be in the mood for it, but nobody does it better.
(When I read the book "A Simple Plan," I DESPERATELY wanted the Coens to film it. Sam Raimi would have been my second choice, I guess, but after seeing it I STILL wish the Coens had done it.)
While this movie may be better appreciated by current Coen fans than newcomers, it's well worth the watching.