You don't have to be a senior citizen or a fan of Vaudeville-style entertainment to enjoy Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys (1975), but it helps. Like its two aging antagonists, Al Lewis (George Burns) and Willy Clark (Walter Matthau), this comedy moves at its own speed whether you like it or not: jokes are repeated and personal encounters often move at a snail's pace...and on the wrong day, this formula might drive certain viewers up the wall. In fact, a few simple revisions of the movie's plot could probably whittle it right down to an hour-long TV special. But why bother rushing things?
The story goes like this: Lewis and Clark (AKA "The Sunshine Boys") were a popular act once upon a time, working together for decades before retirement and personal contempt drove them apart for more than a decade. Clark's nephew Ben (Richard Benjamin) works as a talent agent and doggedly tries to find acting gigs for his stubborn, uncooperative uncle. Luckily enough, ABC's upcoming production of a "History of Comedy" variety show wants Lewis and Clark to reunite for $10,000...and all they've got to do is put their differences aside, rehearse for a few days and perform one sketch in front of the cameras. It sounds simple enough, but what could be a quick and easy payday snowballs into a Sisyphean affair: these guys (especially Clark) can't help but push each other's buttons like an old married couple, even while the cameras are rolling. Ben struggles to put out the fires, but no one can move that fast.
There's more to the story, but let's just say there's a fairly solid little dose of drama mixed in with all the yuks, which shakes up the light tone a bit without dragging the entire production down with it. The bottom line, though, is that The Sunshine Boys remains enjoyable due to the strong performances, razor-sharp exchanges and steady, confident direction by film and stage veteran Herbert Ross. The 79 year-old Burns hadn't appeared in a film since 1939's Honolulu and would enjoy a successful comeback in the years to come. Matthau plays off Burns nicely, believable as his former partner despite the almost 25-year age gap. Richard Benjamin completes the trifecta as the duo's put-upon handler, reminding us that long before we grow old, forgetful and cranky we'll have to deal with relatives that already are.
Warner Bros.' 2004 DVD has since gone long out-of-print and still commands fairly high prices in the secondary market. Though an "official" reprint (or even better, a full-fledged Blu-ray release) would've been ideal, the studio's decision to resurrect The Sunshine Boys as part of its burn-on-demand "Archive Collection" is still good news for old and new fans alike. It appears to be an exact port of the decade-old disc, which means we get a somewhat dated but serviceable A/V presentation and a nice little assortment of bonus features to dig through. All things considered, disciples of classic comedy will certainly want to grab The Sunshine Boys before it disappears again. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in an ever-so-slightly opened up 1.78:1 aspect ratio (which seems to be Warner Bros.' policy for everything originally framed at 1.85:1), this port of their own OOP 2004 DVD is both as decent and frustrating as you'd expect from a ten year-old 480p transfer. The era-specific palette and film stock translate nicely for the most part, featuring subdued and occasionally garish color schemes, as well as solid black levels and image detail. Film grain is moderate at times, as are sporadic flecks of dirt and debris. All things considered, The Sunshine Boys would absolutely benefit from a 1080p transfer, as even the best standard definition visuals often look more like video than film. Those simply looking to get their hands on this buried treasure probably won't mind, but don't expect more than a passable recycled effort.
DISCLAIMER: This review's compressed, resized screen captures are strictly decorative and do not represent this DVD's native 480p resolution.
The Dolby Digital Mono track (also available in a French dub) certainly won't knock you for a loop, but it balances dialogue, music and background effects quite handily. No major hissing, pops or crackles get in the way of all the yuks. Optional English, French and Spanish subtitles have been included...but only during the main feature, unfortunately.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen above, the attractive menu interface is clean and easy to navigate. Separate sub-menus are included for chapter selection and audio/subtitle setup. The burn-on-demand disc is locked for Region 1 players only. This release is housed in a standard keepcase with identical artwork to the previous release, save for the new "Warner Archives" banner.
Everything from the 2004 DVD, as expected. These recycled supplements include a feature-length Audio Commentary with Richard Benjamin ("Ben Clark"), the vintage MGM "Lion Roars Again" Featurette, separate Makeup & Screen Tests featuring Jack Benny, Walter Matthau, and Phil Silvers, plus the film's Theatrical Trailer. Nothing more, nothing less.
Like its two aging antagonists, The Sunshine Boys moves at its own speed whether you like it or not (and just for the record, you'll probably like it). The non-stop bickering is occasionally justified by dashes of drama...and though Matthau and Burns carry most of the weight, Richard Benjamin also does a terrific job as their "handler" trapped in the middle. Warner Bros.' burn-on-demand port of their own 2004 DVD isn't totally disappointing in any specific area, but this ten-year lapse reveals a few cracks in the foundation. Those who never picked up the now-OOP and expensive DVD will certainly want to indulge, but it's a real shame this little gem didn't get the Blu-ray treatment. Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.