Directed By: Herbert Ross
Written By: Neil Simon
Produced By: Herbert Ross, Neil Simon
Cast: Marsha Mason, Jason Robards, Donald Sutherland, Matthew Broderick
MPAA Rating: PG
Runtime: 98 minutes
Review Date: October 8, 2010
Max Dugan Returns is a sugary sweet, leave-your-brain-at-the-door-but-carry-with-you-a-heavy-heart fantasy tale. Once it’s finished, it will disappear with nary a trace. But what’s left will stain in a delightfully colorful, lighthearted tale that absolutely delights. It unfortunately falls victim to some questionable moral choices and a core that is hollow enough to detract from the snappy dialogue and endearing characters that are omnipresent throughout the feature.
The film starts with some flagrant characterizations: Nora McPhee (Marsha Mason) drives to her teaching job in what can only be described as a jalopy that has seen far better days. It literally bounces down the road, popping and grinding as it gears along. Her underprivileged son Michael (played by newcomer Matthew Broderick, who shows tremendous promise) smokes cigarettes in the house while sleeping on his dilapidated mattress. Nora doesn’t have time to cook him breakfast in the morning as she is too busy grading her exam papers. The lack of subtlety is a little taxing, but what follows qualms these early sensations.
After Nora’s “vehicle” is stolen by unseen bandits, Detective Brian Costello (played with sincerity by Donald Sutherland) comes to her aid. Immediately stricken with a crush, he offers his motorcycle to her in exchange for weekend dates. On their first date, he pursues a suspect and brings him down with a swift kick to the head. Again we find characters drawn in Sharpie pen, but they are played with such conviction that it’s easy to forgive the script’s timid approach to them.
Nora, who is equally smitten by Brian, is content with her life despite her family’s fiscal shortcomings. Enter Max Dugan (played by Jason Robards with a sheen of a smile) bearing a briefcase carrying nearly $700,000. Who is this mysterious man who shows up at Nora’s doorstep in the middle of the night? It’s her long-lost father who abandoned her long ago. He comes with two requests:
1. House him until things blow over (he carries with him “illegitimate” money).
2. Allow him to build a relationship with his grandson. He inexplicably has only six months left to live, after all.
This seemingly constitutes a plot, which is merely a set up for Max to shower his family with ostentatious gifts and philosophical meanderings about regretted mistakes and long lost time. It is all insubstantial and excruciatingly shallow, especially when you consider that Max is a deadbeat who spent years in prison yet still carries with him stolen casino money. Fortunately, scribe Neil Simon never delves too deeply into it, instead allowing Max’s shortcomings to act as impetus for his reasons to return in the first place. If you can bite the bullet during this exercise in nonsensical exposition, I’m sure you will find something to like in here.
Whether it be the batting coach Max hires for Michael to help with his lacking swing, the moral choices Detective Brian must make between his dedication to Nora or his job, or the curiously sharp dialogue that peaks its head frequently throughout the story, it’s easy to forget that this script shoots for lengths it can’t reach. Unfortunately, it’s also a film that’s easy to forget.
Kyle Kogan is a film critic living in Chicago.