Lost in Yonkers
1993, PG, 114 min. Directed by Martha Coolidge. Starring Mercedes Ruehl, Richard Dreyfuss, Irene Worth, Brad Stoll, Mike Damus, David Strathairn, Jack Laufer, Susan Merson.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 21, 1993
Neil Simon here has quite successfully adapted his Pulitzer prize-winning stage play for the screen. While Lost in Yonkers is chock-full of the kind of crackling dialogue we've come to associate with Simon, it also has a poignancy and emotional depth that we've seen too rarely in his work. There is also a universality to the story despite its period milieu and distinctive characters. In 1942, 15- and 13-year-old Jay and Arty (Stoll and Damus) are left by their widowed father in the temporary care of their harsh grandmother (Worth) who owns a candy store in Yonkers, New York. Living with Grandma is her 36-year-old daughter Bella (Ruehl) an emotionally arrested child-woman (who, today might be diagnosed with a learning disorder). Grandma rules her home, as well as her candy story downstairs, with a cold Prussian vigilance. Life's cruel lessons have made her stern and joyless, yet her strength and her power derive from her ability to bite the bullet and show no emotion. For better or for worse, this is her legacy to her children and grandchildren. The movie starts off with a kids-in-a-candy-store perspective on this strange new family. Yet by the end, the film has adopted a more pervasive point of view. During Jay and Arty's stay they've learned a lot about their kin who, as their mother once pointed out, each had something rather major wrong with them. They also learn ways to contribute to this family as well as qualities they can carry with them into adulthood. But the central drama of Lost in Yonkers is the feverish battle between Bella and her mother (both Ruehl and Worth reprise their Tony award-winning roles in the movie). Comic relief is provided by Dreyfuss as the boys' Uncle Louie, a third-rate gangster whom the boys regard as a real-life Bogart or Cagney. His is a character who comes on like gangbusters, a role suited to his hammy energy and style. All the performances in this ensemble are wonderful and especially make themselves felt in unexpected places: newcomers Stoll and Damus as the young boys, Strathairn as the object of Bella's affections, Merson as Grandma's speech-impaired daughter. Ruehl occasionally borders dangerously close to precious but that is probably encouraged by her too-tight-fitting wardrobe that over-emphasizes her child-woman status. Otherwise, director Coolidge (Valley Girl, Rambling Rose) moves the story along deftly, ever steering us toward the knowledge that certain abilities, as well as disabilities, are the double-edged outgrowths of Grandma's stifling environment and legacy.