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Barefoot In The Park

Barefoot In The Park

By Paul Costello • June 4th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 3/5
Paramount Pictures

Original release: May 25th, 1967
Running time: 106 minutes

Director: Gene Saks
Writer: Neil Simon

Cast: Robert Redford, Jane Fonda

Barefoot In The Park

Neil Simon is probably one of the most successful writers of the 20th Century. The man behind numerous Broadway plays, films and some TV series, he built much of his career on own his life, creating a very particular style of writing comedy that’s since been translated as the template for sitcoms as we know them. At one point in the 1960s, he actually had four successful plays running on Broadway simultaneously: Barefoot In The Park, The Odd Couple, Sweet Charity, and The Star Spangled Girl. He’s won Golden Globes, WGA awards and the Pulitzer, and been nominated for Emmys, Oscars and Tony awards. His third play, written in 1963 and based on his experiences of his first marriage, was Barefoot In The Park, which was then adapted by himself for the screen in 1967.

I first saw it many years ago, and whilst I remember enjoying it, the only thing I could remember clearly was a brief back-and-forth between Paul Bratter (Robert Redford) and Corrie Bratter (Jane Fonda). He needs to get to work, but she wants him to stay and have fun, which is essentially the whole dynamic of their relationship. She says they should do something wild and crazy, but he says they’ll do it tomorrow night. “Like what?” she asks. He answers, “I’ll come home early, we’ll wallpaper each other.” I think that’s a funny line, classic Neil Simon and Redford delivers it just right. Now, it may just be due to my fondness for dry, absurd humour, but it made the whole film stick in my head. Having given it a viewing today, there’s one thing that’s clear… it’s aged terribly.

When I said Simon helped perfect the standard form of the sitcom, I’m not kidding. Many of his comedies are based on bringing together two personality types that are diametrically opposed, having them share the same space, and surrounding them with a succession of quirky characters and off-the-wall situations. There would also be no real story to drive them, instead having them simply react to each other and whatever happened to come through the door. The Odd Couple is often regarded as the standard to measure such projects against… well, l Simon wrote that. In fairness to him, this was just his style and he built a very successful career on it, and it was a method adopted years later by studios looking to create the most easily exploited situation for comedic purposes. Sit-com, get it? Anyway, this is exactly the format of Barefoot In The Park, however there’s just no getting past the fact that this is too much a product of its time to be watchable today.

Barefoot In The Park

Like I said, there is no story to the film, since it’s meant to be character driven. Two newlyweds begin their new life in a new apartment, but they find out that living together may not be as easy as they think. This is indeed a situation, but there’s nothing that occurs externally to push things along. Oh, some of you out there may be thinking to yourself, “hang on, this all sounds very much like Dharma & Greg.” You’re not alone in that. Many people have since made that particular connection, and it’s no small wonder. I can only imagine that Chuck Lorre caught Barefoot In The Park on TV one night and decided to do his own version. Hell, the film even got its own brief sitcom spin-off, which lasted for 12 episodes in 1970. This is basically what you’ve got in Barefoot In The Park, a feature-length episode of a sitcom with any laughter, applause and funny material removed. So, sure, things happen to them, but nothing more serious than their furniture not being delivered until the next day. As such, it’s entirely down to the characters to create the conflict. So, what are the characters like?

Paul is a stodgy lawyer type, young and looking to make his way in his new firm. That’s pretty much it. He loves his new wife, but clearly finds her eccentricity to be a bit much every now and then. Well, when I say every now and then, I mean pretty much constantly. Every time they’re together, she clings onto him like a leech, and he tries to drag himself away because he has a job to go to. Frankly, given his reaction to her, and hers to him, it is virtually impossible to believe that they actually met before the film started. Physical attraction aside, they have nothing in common.

This ultimately becomes the thing that comes between them and is conflict to be resolved – they are so unlike each other. Apparently he’s so straight-laced that Corrie has only ever seen him drunk once, and she didn’t find that out until the next day when he told her he was. He claims that he can have fun and be wild, that he once got so drunk he punched out an old woman and… Barefoot In The Parkwait a minute, what? He got drunk and punched out an old woman? This is the example he uses to prove that he can get drunk and have fun? Was that meant to be funny? That’s not funny, that’s horrible. He may act like the mature one in the relationship, but he apparently can get quite abusive when drunk… but it’s okay, that just means he’s having fun… As it is, Redford does a fairly good job in the role. He’s a likable guy, and makes Paul somewhat relatable, and he understands the rhythm of Simon’s writing very well. He’s no Jack Lemmon, but he works… when he’s not punching out old women.

Corrie’s mother, Ethel, is the most (read as: only) sympathetic character in the whole film. She’s patient and kind, if a bit melodramatic at times. She also seems to be a bit sickly, needing to sleep on a board for her back, and suffering from some mystery ailment that seems to be exacerbated by the incredibly long climb to her daughter and son-in-law’s new place. To some degree, she actually gets a bit abused by the film, having her endure discomfort, illness and a fall down the stairs (you see, it’s funny because she could’ve been killed) in the interest of creating conflict. Mildred Natwick was the only person to receive an Oscar nomination for her work her, and whilst it wasn’t worth a win, it’s still a fine performance she gives.

Easily the most grating character of the film is Corrie. Fonda’s performance is a bit awkward. Whilst she does commit to the peppy energy and excitement of her character, she doesn’t have Barefoot In The Parkthe same feeling for Simon’s dialogue as the others do. As such, she often goes too far, turning what’s meant to be excitable and upbeat into crazy and strangely accusatory. Fonda has given some fine performances in her life, but this simply is not one of them.

Just to add one final blow to proceedings, Gene Saks’ direction is really very lacking. As is a typical problem when adapting a stage play to the screen, the director has treated it like he’s filming the stage play, rather than making a film, so things just look blocky. Now, to be fair, this was Saks’ first directing gig, and it’s certainly not as bad as it could have been. However, the film still looks flat, stagey and lacking any decent form of composition. That Saks’ would go on to direct three more film adaptations of Simon plays, with Simon doing the scripting duties, is kind of weird since it’s by no stretch a good job.

Barefoot In The Park is an incredibly infuriating film to watch. Though it was received much better at the time of its release, time has been very unkind. The characters are annoying, creepy or just insane; the direction is stagey and unpleasant; and it’s simply not funny. Some of the lines are okay, and the performances from Redford, Natwick and Boyer are varying degrees of good, but Fonda has no feel for the material, making an unpleasant character pretty much unbearable. Sadly, this will always be regarded as one of those “forgotten classics” or “overlooked gems” that never gets as much recognition as it deserves, but it just isn’t good enough to warrant that kind of reputation.

Barefoot In The Park

Paul Costello

Paul Costello

Paul Costello is a critic, blogger and former film editor with a degree in filmmaking from the University of the West of Scotland. He’s been watching movies for as long as he can remember, and began the process of writing about every movie he owns on his blog: acinephilesjourney.blogspot.co.uk. He’ll be at that for a while. He’s also the resident film writer at TheStreetSavvy.com.

You can follow him on Twitter @PaulCinephile.

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