My favorite movie, and it gets better with each viewing
"A Thousand Clowns" has been my favorite movie for 30 years -- not because it's the world's finest work of cinema (it's not; mainly it's a well-filmed play -- good, but not a masterpiece). What makes it my favorite is that the story is profoundly human, the script is unique and genuinely witty, the performances are delightful, and -- most importantly -- it's a movie that takes on new meaning as you mature.
When I first saw it I was in college and Murray was my hero; his crisis, to me, was all about selling out. Later, after I had started a family, Murray's story seemed less about selling out than about owning up to his devotion to his nephew. By the time I showed this movie to my teenage children, I had come to see Murray's brother -- the master compromiser -- as the hero. Now my children are grown, and I just watched it again -- and for the first time I saw that the buttoned-up male social worker (Mr. Amundson, played by William Daniels), shows great heart in the second act and is the only character who aims at all times to do what he knows is right. Amundson hasn't become my hero, but I saw him as a good man this time -- and I never as a young viewer imagined that he was anything but laughable. Also on this viewing, I came full circle to see that Murray really IS the hero in this story -- not because he's a charming nonconformist but because he does achieve redemption.
What keeps this movie so important for me is that, even after raising children, I still respect Murray's conflict and so I think his redemption really is heroic -- though no more heroic than any parent's true devotion. (If you don't respect Murray's conflict -- if conformity has never bothered you, or if you think he's just a bum, period -- then you might not enjoy this movie.)
This movie grows up with you, but some things remains constant with every viewing: the film's stunning wit, its passion for authenticity (Murray's speech on the fire escape is a deeply moving plea to wake up and live), and its charmed performances. If you like Jason Robards, you will love him in this film. And Gene Saks, as the TV star Chuckles the Chipmunk, does some of the best comedy work I've seen anywhere. (Notice his timing on the line, "She's done a wonderful job," and the ridiculous walk he came up with for the line, "You told me her name was Minnie Mouse!")
As a bonus, this movie gives you a sidewalk-level, free-wheeling view of Manhattan when it wasn't so overpopulated and Lincoln Center was just being built. It's enough to make you want to quit your job and start collecting eagles.
This movie creates a real and engaging feeling for the title character's life -- his ridiculous childhood, with seedy parents each pretending in their own perverse ways to give him wholesome roots, followed by his self-led path into adulthood and sincere, anti-authority liberalism. That it creates an authentic and engaging world is the best I can say for the movie as a whole, because the story lacks a real "hook" (the fake scandal that's meant to hook you and anchor the story never amounts to much and it's not even interesting), and the plotting of that misfired story sort of ambles wherever it feels like going, without any belief in itself. The acting is good (often very good), so there's never any question that the characters themselves care about the story, but they rarely reach through the screen and make you care too.
It's only when the movie stops narrating a story and instead admits to being simply a pastiche of one man's big house of a life, that it really pulls you in and make you glad to be ambling through its comfortably unconventional rooms.
At the heart of this film's big house of a life is not Joshua (he's too busy thinking the story is important) -- no, the real heart of this movie, when it's honest, is Alan Arkin's thoroughly delightful, effortlessly expert, full incarnation of Joshua's father. Reuben is a mid-level crook who breezes through his shady life with a flashy white suit, a profound love for his son, a Talmudic view of the big picture, and an interpretation of the Bible that sounds like the treatment for an old boxing movie. He is an absolute treat every moment he's on screen. I'm tempted to quote some of his best lines here, but it's not the lines that do it; it's Arkin's subtly hilarious and fully human expression of this completely original character that makes you want to rewind after each of his scenes and watch it again.
In fact, if the story doesn't hold your interest (and it probably won't), I recommend giving up and simply forward-searching from one Arkin scene to the next, maybe stopping to watch the bizarre strip-tease Bar Mitvah party scene.
Michael Sarrazin is the second gem in this movie, but his brief screen time is only enough to show you that he is one brilliant actor. His delivery of a two-word line ("Excuse me," in tennis whites) fully conveys an entire character -- privileged childhood, screwed-up adolescence, class arrogance that he wears with perfect grace over his complete failure as a grown-up, and all of this in just two words. His other moments are just as good; I wanted more of them.
Now, about James Woods. Critics said he gave a "creditable" performance as Joshua, but I don't want "creditable" in the lead role -- I want to care about him, and I never once cared about Joshua (except in childhood scenes, played by more likable actors). The adult Joshua is supposed to be a charmer, and Woods' Joshua might charm the other characters, but that's only because the script says he does. He never charms the viewer, and this is the film's biggest flaw.
I recommend this movie not for its story or lead performances, but for its ambiance and especially for Arkin. This may be his finest comic performance on film.
First, an explanation: Despite my headline, I'm giving this film only 8 stars because overall this is NOT one of the best films ever made. All the criticisms registered here have valid points. Also, be warned that to enjoy the script you really need to appreciate Neil Simon's brilliance with finding the wit within real human banter. He does have a distinctively New York ear for dialogue -- especially dry, Jewish, love-suffused sarcasm -- and if you have trouble accepting sarcasm as an expression of love, then you might have trouble accepting the optimism at the heart of this movie.
So much for warnings. Here's my main point: Walter Matthau is flat-out perfect, even beyond perfect, in this movie. I have never seen him funnier, or more touching for that matter -- because at the same time that he shows us the hilariousness of this character who refuses to give up his Big Star self-image or insufferable attitudes even as his coherence is in decline, he also shows us the more vulnerable, maybe even heartbreakingly scared person inside the grouch. And he only barely shows us that sad part -- it's just enough to really get to you if you happen to be coping with your own father's or husband's mental decline right now (I mention this as a warning), but artistically, it's just enough pathos to give this character the most authentically deep roots I'm seen in possibly any film performance. This is beyond Method acting -- Matthau's performance is exquisite as character work and a pure delight as comic delivery. This is a masterpiece of comic acting.
About Richard Benjamin: I personally find his acting annoying in general, and his work in this movie is no exception -- although he has some fine moments here. ("Chicken is funny...." is one of them.) So if you like him, you should like him here, and if you don't this movie won't change your mind.
About the 1976 Oscars...I agree that Matthau was unfortunate to be up against Nicholson in "Cuckoo's Nest" that year. It was a killer year for leading-actor competition; if only there were separate Oscars for comedy and drama, then I think the Best Actor Oscars would have gone to Al Pacino for "Dog Day Afternoon" and to Walter Matthau for "The Sunshine Boys" -- not to dis Jack's fine work as McMurphy, but I think that Pacino and Matthau were each CLEARLY more masterful and astoundingly effective and downright legendary in their performances than Nicholson was that year. Also, I believe that Burns got the Supporting Actor Oscar more for sentimental reasons than for the quality of his performance -- I mean, he was good in this movie, but not THAT good. (Burns's fine-as-ever but unexceptional-in-itself return to show biz beat Brad Dourif's truly brilliant debut in "Cuckoo's Nest," not to mention Chris Sarandon's stunning debut in "Dog Day Afternoon" -- which I think proves my theory.)
Oscar theories aside, here's my bottom line review: If you like Matthau's comic acting, then see this movie and savor his powerhouse tirades and wonderful grandmother-inspired gestures, fleeting facial expressions and seemingly unscripted asides. (But if you're currently dealing with the pain of watching an old person lose his grip, then be warned that this movie might either be the comic relief you need or a dose of reality too painful to watch right now.)
Possibly the best teenage-girlfriend movie ever made
I saw this movie at age 8, and it immediately became my favorite movie -- not just because of the natural acting, engaging cinematography, enchanting view of NYC, wonderful characterizations, all of which I didn't know I appreciated until later. Mainly -- AND THIS IS IMPORTANT IF YOU HAVE A DAUGHTER -- I loved it because it got across the magical, honest bond of best-friendship between girls.
How often does a girl find a movie that so genuinely AND unsentimentally presents girls as self-reliant and strong (with giddiness that makes them likable, not weak), or that presents the girlfriend bond as something so perfect and fun and full of adventure? In the 1960s, this was the only movie I saw that made me feel privileged to be female. Disney movies in the '60s tried to give girlhood equal time, but they still came from a boy's viewpoint -- as if to say, "Girls can have fun just like boys do." This movie doesn't do that -- it's far more sophisticated culturally and more hip to the truth about parents than any Disney movie ever was, and it's very grounded in how girls really are. George Roy Hill clearly understood what a real buddy movie is made of, regardless of age or gender (remember "The Sting"?).
I showed this film to my daughter when she was 12, and she loved it too. She's 18 now, and yesterday she went out and got the DVD -- because she says she saw it at a friend's house last week and realized that she still loves it. She's watching it as I write this.
A few notes about Merrie Spaeth: First, she became a well-known media consultant and political speechwriter, which is why the film "Wag the Dog" used her name for one of the actresses considered to play the peasant girl in the fake Albanian bombing newsreel. Also, the Spaeth family is a long-standing name among Philadelphia-area Quakers (although I have no idea if Merrie is from this area or is a Quaker)...but I once met a doctor in the area with the same name so I asked if he was related. He was, and he told me that -- in addition to the amazing notes you can read in her IMDb bio -- Merrie used to write for Superman comics. I think that is WAY cooler than writing speeches for Ronald Reagan; she should put Superman and Henry Orient at the top of her resume.