Analysis: Remake or revival?

Jan. 17, 2004 at 3:31 AM
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LOS ANGELES, Jan. 17 (UPI) -- As TNT prepared to air a new version of "The Goodbye Girl," reviewers seemed preoccupied with questioning the wisdom of remaking Neil Simon's classic comedy.

The TV version is a reworking of the 1977 film about a self-centered actor and a wizened single-mom Broadway dancer who are forced to share a New York apartment. The movie was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and won the Golden Globe. It also earned a Best Actor Oscar for Richard Dreyfuss and a Best Actress nomination for Marsha Mason.

The remake -- or revival, depending on your preference -- stars Jeff Daniels and Patricia Heaton. Richard Benjamin directed it, from a screenplay that -- except for a few updated references -- is largely identical to the one that earned Simon an Oscar nomination for original screenplay.

Daily Variety more or less grudgingly conceded that the TV movie is all right -- but not wonderful.

"Nothing in the remake is painful or even bad, necessarily," said Variety, "but like the shot-for-shot remake of 'Psycho' or the musical career of Clay Aiken, it simply brings so little new to the party that the question is why it exists at all."

The Hollywood Reporter, on the other hand, concluded that the new version has "all of the charm and tenderness of the original."

In an interview with United Press International, Benjamin -- whose directing credits include "The Money Pit" and "My Favorite Year" -- said he had his own reservations on the subject when he undertook to remake the movie.

"You should remake flops not hits," he said. "When I realized what this was -- and it's Neil Simon, who I've known for so long, and it's always such a pleasure to do anything with him -- I said why not? Revivals of plays are done all the time, why not do this?

Although it added to the production cost, Benjamin insisted on shooting the picture in New York -- in large part because he felt the project would help promote the city's continuing recovery from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack.

"There's an innocence in this picture that is about people falling in love and coming to New York to make it," he said. "That's the New York story, and that innocence was shattered on 9/11."

Innocence and optimism are central to the story in "The Goodbye Girl." Daniels' character has those qualities in abundance, while Heaton's character has lost her idealism to a life of personal and professional disappointment. Daniels had been getting some of the best notice of his career, and Benjamin said he deserves them.

"His range is enormous, from 'Dumb and Dumber' to 'The Hours,'" said Benjamin. "But as a romantic leading man, I feel it's a rediscovery there. There are very few leading men who can do comedy. The movies are always looking for the Cary Grants and the Jimmy Stewarts and the Jack Lemmons. Jeff can do it all."

Although it remains fashionable to regard TV movies as inferior products to feature films, Benjamin said he shoots TV movies the same way he shoots feature films.

"I have to go a lot faster and there are sometime production compromises but I refuse to do anything that harms performances," he said. "This is a feature script that we shot in half the time of the original feature."

Simon put it even more emphatically.

"What's amazing is we did it in one-tenth time and at one-tenth the price," he told UPI. "I said why don't you release it in theaters again?"

Of course, now that network executives know they can get feature-type product for TV movie-type money, that may squeeze filmmakers in the future to do more with less. Simon said the new take on "The Goodbye girl" cost about as much to make as Hollywood's highest-paid stars collect for one movie -- still a lot of money for a TV movie budget.

"When stars are asking for $20 million, we can pay that to make this movie," he said. "But the studios and the companies that do it need more proof that this is going to be wonderful before they hand out that kind of money."

Both Benjamin and Simon are hoping TNT will decide to do another Simon script. Each wants to work with the other again.

"Sometimes I'm working on something and he's working on something else and if the projects give us time to work together we do that," said Simon. "I'm sure the next project will. Also if we do another one of these TNT films I would only want to use Richard."

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