The Goodbye Girl (1977)

Director: Herbert Ross
Screenwriter: Neil Simon
Cast: Richard Dreyfuss, Marsha Mason, Quinn Cummings, Paul Benedict, Barbara Rhoades
Nominations: Picture, Actor – Richard Dreyfuss, Actress – Marsha Mason, Supporting Actress – Quinn Cummings, Original Screenplay
Win: Actor – Richard Dreyfuss

It goes without saying that Neil Simon is one of the best comedy writers of the 20th century, from his writing in radio and early television to Broadway and films.  His characters are interesting, his dialogue is clever and quotable, and his stories are ageless, just as relatable today as they were when initially written.  (Case in point, The Goodbye Girl was remade as a television movie starring Jeff Daniels and Patricia Heaton in 2004 with only cosmetic changes to Simon’s original 1977 screenplay.)  His work is among the must-read/see/watch for anyone interested in learning how to craft humor and comedy. 

The Goodbye Girl is funny, from Elliot being told to play Richard III as a gay hunchback to Lucy’s wise-beyond-her-years observations of her mother.  The one-liners are quick, full of wit and truth, and while the situation that forms the film’s foundation is just a bit outside the realm of reality, it’s not exactly unbelievable enough to pull us out of the story.  Even though I laughed at various times throughout the film, the issue I had with the humor was that it was all just a bit too quick—yes, some folks can spit out the zingers with little effort, but with both Elliot and Paula trading barbs the script starts to show through the performances.  Throw in 10-year-old Lucy having the same quickness, and the characters’ dialogue begins feeling forced.  It also doesn’t help that the back-and-forth is all delivered in Neil Simon’s voice: that is, the characters start sounding incredibly similar that if you only read the lines it’d be tough to point out what was said by Paula and what was said by Elliot.  It doesn’t make the dialogue any less effective or enjoyable, but all the conversations sound one-sided or like someone is talking to themselves.

One of the bigger problems with the film, however, is its plotting.  For about 80 minutes (of a 110-minute movie), Elliot and Paula are constantly at odds.  Then all of a sudden—in a huge DO NOT DO move today, but really at any time ever—Elliot corners Paula in the bathroom and aggressively compliments and kisses her.  It’s a full 180 of Elliot’s previous disposition that comes out of nowhere;  Saying it was rushed would be an understatement.  I mean, the only thing that changed for him was a slew of bad reviews and getting punched in the face; and apparently that’s just what it takes to start pursuing a woman you were purely platonic with.  Unless the reviews took a deeper psychological toll on him than he lets on and/or the punch gave him brain damage, it doesn’t make sense for him to change so drastically.  When the scene played out it felt that either I missed a scene or two that showed Elliot’s change, or that Neil Simon checked his page count when writing the script and realized he didn’t have many pages left before the story should start wrapping up. 

Overall, The Goodbye Girl is okay and has (mostly) aged well.  Dreyfuss’s performance is exciting and so full of energy that you might forget or ignore the film’s shortcomings.  I imagine Dreyfuss should get the lion’s share of credit for the movie landing a Best Picture nomination, because nothing stands out as much as he does, and he makes the film worth watching.  Looking at other 1977 films, it seems that The Goodbye Girl probably just slid in to the Best Picture slate ahead of another Dreyfuss outing: the classic and still highly influential Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg), which managed 8 nominations (resulting in 1 win for Cinematography) and a Special Achievement Oscar (for Sound Effects Editing), but no Best Picture nomination—sometimes the better films don’t get recognized in their day, but they get remembered as the years go by.