Max Dugan Returns (1983)


(director/writer: Herbert Ross; screenwriter: Neil Simon; cinematographer: David M. Walsh; editor: Richard Marks; music: David Shire; cast: Marsha Mason (Nora McPhee), Matthew Broderick (Michael McPhee), Jason Robards (Max Dugan), Donald Sutherland (Lt. Brian Costello), Dody Goodman (Neighbor), Charlie Lau (Himself, Batting instructor for the White Sox), Sal Viscuso (Coach Roy), Kiefer Sutherland (Bill); Runtime: 98; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Herbert Ross/Neil Simon; 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment; 1983)

“Crowd-pleasing domestic comedy that’s based on a Neil Simon screenplay.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Herbert Ross (“The Goodbye Girl”/”California Suite”/”Steel Magnolias”)directs this crowd-pleasing domestic comedy that’s based on a Neil Simon screenplay.It works so well because the ensemble cast is just perfect for this sweet comedic fable, as everyone has such a light touch and is so appealing.

ThirtysomethingNora McPhee (Marsha Mason) is a single parent, widowed, 10th grade English teacher in a Venice Beach high school, in the LA area, who is struggling to raise her 15-year-old son Michael (Matthew Broderick, his film debut). The harried under-paid teacher one morning wakes up late after marking test papers late at night and finds the refrigerator doesn’t work and when stopping off at a coffee shop has her rundown old car stolen. The investigating policeman, Lt. Costello (Donald Sutherland), lends Nora his spare motorcycle and the divorced cop with kids arranges to date Nora on week-ends. Complications occur when Nora’s long-lost father, Max Dugan (Jason Robards), who abandoned the Chicago family when she was 9, returns secretly in the middle of the night and shocks Nora by his sudden presence and his strange tale. The philosophical eccentric, a neglectful father with no reasonable excuse for abandonment, spent six years in prison for embezzlement and when released bought some valuable real-estate. But a mob-run Las Vegas casino cheated him out of the property. To get revenge, Max worked as a dealer for their casino and skimmed over $600,000 while dealing. He’s now being hunted by the mobsters. Also his doctor told him he only has six months to live because of a bad heart. Max’s only wish is to live out the six months with the grandson he never saw before, and to leave his daughter and grandson the fortune. Even though Nora refuses to have anything to do with the stolen money, the smooth talking Max stays in the house and plies the family with expensive gifts such as appliances, a new Mercedes-Benz convertible, the latest TV and video equipment, remodels the inside and outside of the house, pays for the Chicago White Sox hitting coach Charlie Lau to give his weak hitting high school ballplayer son private hitting instruction, a diamond necklace for his daughter and a costly pure-breed pet dog for Michael.

When Max is forced to leave town because his daughter’s intelligent policeman boyfriend investigates him, the film doesn’t want us to think too much about anything–such as to wonder if these material gifts can make up for all those years of neglect and if it’s never too late to find redemption. Instead it leaves us feeling good that the nice Mason character and the nice Broderick character and even the nice Sutherland character, can enjoy what’s happening to them without feeling guilty or needing to reflect further on it. It might be a far cry from reality, but reality is not the direction this film wants to take. If you get a few laughs over this hokum, which I got, then I guess it does its job as entertainment.