Neil Simon's "Chapter Two" was one of those unfortunate films from a master scribe that I approached with a heavily skeptical viewpoint. Somehow I managed to avoid one of Simon's semi-autobiographical offerings, produced in the heyday of Simon's 1970s film offerings, mostly due to negative word of mouth and truth be told, a EP VHS copy I tried to watch a number of times but couldn't get past the sickening picture quality. Thankfully, due to Sony's manufactured-on-demand Choice Collection, one of the more noteworthy but illusive Simon film offerings makes its way to DVD. Despite the negative word of mouth in my own circle, "Chapter Two" is a film of critical merit, garnering Marsha Mason her third Academy Award nomination. Now, 34 years after it's release, "Chapter Two" is a surprisingly familiar diversion and one I found enjoyable for reasons that wouldn't have existed even a decade ago.
The film's fundamental flaws are also part of it's charm; at it's core, "Chapter Two" is a romantic dramedy, casting James Caan in the Simon role, George Schneider, a recently widowed author and Marsha Mason as Jennie MacLaine, or for those with even passing knowledge of Simon, essentially herself as she was married to Simon at time of the play's initial run and the film's production. The casting of Caan is an interesting choice; on one hand it's definitely against type for his previous work, taking a leading man known for being confident and tough and letting him run wild as a neurotic, grieving Jewish writer. The problem is Caan is too much of a force and his performance stretches the boundaries of believability and into scenery chewing territory. Marsha Mason on the other hand is naturally collected and emotionally complex, dealing with her own insecurities and George's often erratic behavior with a natural air that just isn't found often, if at all, in what wants to be a deep, introspective film at times, but feels tonally shallow.
At a few minutes north of two-hours, "Chapter Two" is painfully long, especially in the film's final act that likely earns the film it's most venomous disdain. The denouement to the story of George and Jennie is abrupt, contrived, and shatters the notion of even being semi-autobiographical. The preceding story jumps back and forth between tackling very serious issues, such as, can a man who has tragically lost the love of his life hope to love again and make that special scared bond, but does so in a narrative structure that puts our characters into instances of perfect dialogue that fail on a realism level but succeed in spades on a quaint level of idealism that results in a film that manages to be, time after time, emotionally appealing.
"Chapter Two" honestly works best as very light Neil Simon. Viewers going for the razor sharp wit of "The Odd Couple" or the earnest emotional intensity of "The Goodbye Girl" are going to be sorely disappointed and in particular, that latter mentioned film is perhaps why some were not or are still not fond of the film; Mason's performance is undeniably great though and criminally underutilized supporting talents Joseph Bologna and Valerie Harper give a glimpse at a pair of characters who actually at times in the film come off as more grounded and human as the two leads. In a modern, cynical world though, "Chapter Two" manages to resonate on the primal level of problems having contrived, simple, maybe even whimsical solutions and both Caan and Mason do have on-screen chemistry, despite the formers proclivities to overact. In a perfect world, especially one with hindsight, had the film been made with Alan Alda in Caan's role, "Chapter Two" would have almost assuredly aged with a finer legacy as Alda's work in Simon's "Jake's Women" has shades of the character Caan was supposed to be playing here. Alas the world is not perfect, but "Chapter Two" is a perfect diversion.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is heavy on grain/digital noise and detail levels are on the average, to the every so slightly below average level. Contrast and color are a product of the time, slightly on the dark and warm side respectively.
The Dolby Digital English mono soundtrack is a clean track, although the overall mix could be more refined and pronounced when it comes to dialogue with effects and score feeling more weighty then they should be.
It's not "The Goodbye Girl" nor "The Odd Couple," but "Chapter Two" has plenty to offer, first and foremost good on-screen chemistry despite inconsistent performances between the two leads. A tighter script would have solved many of the film's problems and made the hasty ending a bit more palatable; the final product is one of it's time, but strangely refreshing decades later when cynicism can be washed away with idealism. Recommended.