FF45 - Biloxi Blues

Intro by John Roderick

Neil Simon is the Norman Rockwell of playwrights. That's the kind of glib comparison a Neil Simon character would use as a snappy audience-appeasing putdown, directed at a Neil Simon-esque playwright in one of Neil Simon's plays if that character was trying to be sophisticated and knowing, but just does that kind of glib insult reveals itself to not really be an insult once one re-evaluates the cultural importance of Norman Rockwell, so does the Neil Simon like playwright within and Neil Simon play resolve into the actual Norman Rockwell like Neil Simon, who is truly an American icon revealing the glib character to be more sophisticated than we knew at first in such a way that we can congratulate ourselves for having known it all along. We learned to love that glib character who insulted both Norman Rockwell and Neil Simon because we imagine we are smart enough to get the joke behind the joke and still make it home to be yelled at by our mothers to wash up before dinner.

Neil Simon belongs in the all-time American Hall of Fame for the following reasons: Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Brighton Beach Memoirs and The Goodbye Girl. He did other amazing things as well, but these are enough. The humour in these pieces is gentle, smart and self-aware, never brittle. Woody Allen's humour was more incisive, sure, but immature. A lot of Neil Simon's contemporaries were trying to shock or injure, but Neil painted us like Norman Rockwell did in revealing caricatures that became part and parcel of how we saw ourselves. Honestly, this is just what Matthew Broderick does, too. He portrays himself as we imagine ourselves: Occasionally looking dead at the camera to shrug and say: "Ain't life a doozy?" He knows it's a farce! Everything! But he goes along with it for fun and that is so freaking appealing.

Throughout the 1980s and the 1990s I would have eagerly spent ten dollars to watch Matthew Broderick open a jar of pickles, no question! He and John Cusack both spent a decade with their shoes untied and their sweatshirts on backwards like a couple of 4 year olds and honestly: I think that's a big part of why Generation X never learned to hold down a job. So it's no surprise that the Neil Simon play Biloxi Blues costarring Matthew Broderick was a huge hit on Broadway and won the Tony Award for Best Play, and it is further to be expected that the play was made into a film and that famous director and American legend Mike Nichols would directed it. And the film arrived right in the perfect American moment with the powers of Broadway and Neil Simon and Mike Nichols and Matthew Broderick and an entire audience of still living World War II veterans and their wives and friends and cultural Judaeaphilia and a critical reassessment of Norman Rockwell all combined with saxophone and reckless folly to produce a masterpiece.

But alas: No! What did result from all this amassed firepower was a strangely tone-deaf and ineffectual little smoke bomb. No one was injured by it, it wasn't a flop by any means, people liked it! I liked it a lot, but remember I was 19 years old sitting there in the theater, clutching a World War II vintage jar of pickles. This movie landed right in my blindspot in 1988: A boot camp movie where a bunch of Brooklyn Jewish boys trained for World War II, but are never deployed to it because the war in Japan is over before they can get there? God it was my Debbie Does Dallas! But watching it again it was deflating, I mean sort of like rewatching Debbie Does Dallas. Look: It has a lot going for it. I can't let my faded youth get in the way here. Neil Simon's progressive Jewish artsy-type protagonist is private Eugene Morris Jerome, Broderick, training in Biloxi under the nutty nutty Sergeant Merwin Toomey, played psychopathic by the supremely weird Christopher Walken.

I don't mean Walken plays to me as a psychopath, although he does that too, but I mean that his acting is psychopathic. We had a light comedy going on here and all of a sudden the Deerhunter comes into frame and then he stays there throughout the entire movie, while the light comedy keeps burbling along trying to stay on course, but: Oh, here comes the Deerhunter again. It's insane! The film is set up as a series of vignettes with very little in the way of rising action or tension. Occasionally private Wykowski starts a fight or private Epstein has a philosophical reverie that is both appealingly smart and also frustratingly stubborn in light of the ongoing setting of a boot camp in the Deep South.

Then there's this heart-wrenching subplot about the humiliating penalties for homosexuality in the 1940s U.S. Army that was daring for a mainstream movie in 1988. There are some broad stereotypes of Polish Americans and there's a hooker with a heart of gold. But there are a lot of boot camp movies and this isn't really in the top rank. We're not ever really scared. We never feel like these guys will end up soldiers. None of it feels real. The stakes are all confined. In turning it from a play to a movie they replaced the pitch perfect William Sadler with Walken in the role of Toomey, turning a story about Brooklyn Jews learning to soldier under a hard ass Southerner into a bizarre conflict between some New York guys who are all sweating it out in the South.

Tell me, Jerome: If a piss-drunk sergeant has a loaded 45 pointed at the head of a piece of dung that the piss-drunk Sergeant hates and despises, how would you describe the situation? Today on Friendly Fire: The 1988 film directed by Mike Nichols: Biloxi Blues.

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