- Movie Rating -

Only When I Laugh (1981)

| September 23, 1981

I did not relate to one single thing in Neil Simon’s Only When I Laugh.  Here is a comedy-drama about fractured relationships, about familial problems, about serious domestic issues and yet I didn’t relate to any of it, not out of experience but simply because every character in this movie talks as if they’re reading the script from cue cards.

Only When I Laugh is based on Simon’s first dramatic work “The Gingerbread Lady” which was largely thought to have been written for Maureen Stapleton.  She might have brought some life to this movie which has now been recycled and retitled and turned into a movie that also needed to be rewritten.

The movie stars Marsha Mason as a recovering alcoholic who has just been released from a rehabilitation program and tries desperately to pick up the damaged pieces of her relationship with her daughter played by Kristy McNichol.  She’s been living with her father for several years and now she has moved back in with her mother in the hopes of rebuilding that relationship.

Okay, fine.  There’s a serious situation.  The problem is that this is only half of the movie.  The rest are dumb scenes involving stupid situations and half-written characters whose problems are never dealt with.  Scenes of Mason and McNicol teasing two teenage boys in a restaurant are alternated with scenes of McNicol screaming at her mother for her problems when she starts drinking again.  Side characters are introduced and never dealt with Joan Hackett plays a woman going through a divorce but it’s used for cute, silly one-liners.  James Coco plays a gay man whose function is to also issue cute one-liners but we never meet his boyfriend or delve into his life. 

The movie feels as if Simon is afraid of issues like alcoholism, divorce or homosexuality.  Just when he gets to a serious point, he makes a joke that topples the whole thing.  The dialogue here feels like it was written to be read rather than to be spoken.  In the dramatic scenes it feels like it was written for a soap opera.  In the comedic scenes it feels like it was written for a sitcom.  Yet, at no point to we ever grasp the reality of the situation or the plight of the characters.  They are willing.  Mason is trying.  McNicol is trying, but their dialogue undermines their characters and makes them sound like pieces being moved around.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1981) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized