Honoring Molly Haskell: A Review of “The Out-of-Towners”

“Neil Simon ought to have been able to find the meat on whatever bones of humor are left in the spectacle of disaster, dishonesty, and decay we call New York City”


This week, the New York Film Critics Circle gave a special award to Molly Haskell, one of America’s foremost film scholars and a pioneering feminist critic. Haskell, author of the essential study From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies and other books (including a recent one on Steven Spielberg), wrote for the Village Voice throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. As a tribute, this week we are featuring selections from our archives. (Earlier this week, we posted her review of Gator, her review of The Story of Adele H, and a 1975 dialogue–joint review with Andrew Sarris of Robert Altman’s classic Nashville.) Here now is Haskell’s 1975 review of Arthur Hiller and Neil Simon’s The Out-of-Towners.

The Out-Of-Towners
By Molly Haskell
June 4, 1970

On the assumption that no situation is so grim that a few laughs can’t be wrung out of it (look at Feiffer and Buchwald on Nixon), Neil Simon ought to have been able to find the meat on whatever bones of humor are left in the spectacle of disaster, dishonesty, and decay we call New York City. Mr. Simon not only has a geiger counter for laugh lines, but he is a New Yorker. In most of his plays (in fact, all that I’ve seen), New York City lurks like a heavy in the background, having already sown seeds of environmental neurosis which Simon’s intransigently unswinging suburbanites must somehow contend with.

It is a hydra which manifests itself in diverse ways according to character and situation: as a restaurant called “Queen of the Sea” which has tainted the fumbling fingers of the red hot lover; as a five-floor, mother-defying walk-up of a pair of newlyweds; as a seedily West Side apartment both too big and too small for the odd couple; and as the intimidating aura of a suite at the Plaza.

Until The Out-of-Towners, Simon’s first script written directly for the screen, New York has always played a secondary (if significant) role. Here it is the central character, springing its little surprises in the best tradition of guerrilla warfare. The film, directed with little gradation by Arthur Hiller, is a comedy of situations rather than character. (Even so, Simon is compelled to whitewash the statistics in order not to offend anyone and to keep it a comedy.) Simon has devoted his attention to enumerating the presumably hilarious misadventures which could befall an unsuspecting couple (Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis) from Dayton: circling New York and finally landing in Boston, taking the train down, losing their baggage, suffering from two muggings, garbage and transportation strikes, becoming involved in a robbery and a political demonstration, etc., but has given only secondary attention to the characters themselves. The couple’s actions and reactions are determined in an ad hoc basis, according to the demands of situation and mood contrast (of which there is only too little) rather than any consistent characterization.

As George Kellerman, executive from Dayton, Jack Lemmon (and for this Hiller must be more than partially blamed) comes on in hysteria and must overreact from then on. I couldn’t help thinking, as he inveighed violently against airline representatives and hotel clerks, that this is just the kind of jerk against which New York initially erected its protective shell of indifference, now institutionalized. In his horror of appearing emasculated, the Lemmon character pushes every encounter into a confrontation, from which he must emerge as master or victim. His helplessness is occasionally the helplessness of an out-of-towner, but more often that of a fool, in situations which are not inevitable but arise from his own incompetence and/or insecurity. Arriving in New York on the train instead of flying down the next morning for his appointment (slavish behavior for a top executive), he drags his wife through a downpour to their hotel and, insisting that he knows the way (virility being jeopardized by the asking of directions), gets lost. As the wife, Sandy Dennis behaves with considerable cool and, under the circumstances, sniffles less than she is entitled to.

Because Simon is dealing with a place — and a commonplace — rather than people, it is only too easy to see the jokes coming long before they arrive. We feel the boredom of anticipation rather than the shock of recognition, and sometimes the jokes themselves ring false. Example: when Lemmon, discussing with his wife the prospective joys of living in New York, says that everybody knows how good the New York public schools are! You would have to be Rip van Winkle rising from a 10-year slumber in Siberia to make a statement like that.