' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975)

Friday, February 13, 2015

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975)

As a title, “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” isn’t quite right. The title should be “The Prisoner of New York.” It’s like New York is the penitentiary and Second Avenue is the cell block. This isn’t the Gershwin-infused, black & white Manhattan of “Manhattan”; this is a dirty stinking hellhole of a town, to quote Charlie Kelly (even though he was talking about Philadelphia). It’s Neil Simon by way of Paddy Chayefsky. Mel Edison (Jack Lemmon) is mad as hell and he’s not going to take it anymore. The city! The noise! The garbage! The heat! The air conditioning! The toilet that won’t flush unless you jiggle the handle! Why’s he paying for the toilet if you gotta jiggle the handle?! It sends him to the roof to scream at the passerby’s below and to scream at the tenement residents up above when they scream at him to shut up. If you can make it there you can make it anywhere, goes the saying, but what if “there” drives you to a nervous breakdown? That’s the question explored by this cinematic adaptation of a Neil Simon play, one that pierces with a caustic arrow despite its boorish sitcom principles.


Mel isn’t so much a mad prophet, in the tradition of Howard Beale, as a man who has trudged so much city asphalt over the years that he’s finally come up against the border of crazy. The film routinely interjects out-of-nowhere news report voiceovers of ridiculous happenings around the city, like a boat of Polish tourists running aground on the Statue of Liberty. Whether this is true or figments of Mel’s imagination is never really spelled out, and probably shouldn’t be.

Maybe that’s what happens to everyone in New York eventually? At one point, convinced he’s been mugged, he chases down the thief to lay down the smack and re-claim his wallet. The funniest part isn’t that it’s not HIS wallet (he forgot it at home) but that the mugger is played by a pre-Italian Stallion Sylvester Stallone. “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” is the kind of movie where Jack Lemmon beats the crap outta Sly and you don’t bat your eye because Lemmon’s crazy eyes are so convincing.

It might be difficult to stand, in fact, if not for Lemmon. “If you’re a human being you reserve the right to complain,” he says and, boy oh boy, does he flaunt that right. It’s one massive whining session. He’s not unlike George Costanza, which is appropriate because Jerry once compared George to Willy Loman and Mel Edison has more than a little Willy Loman in him. Eventually he loses his job. Of course, he doesn’t tell his wife, Edna (Anne Bancroft), at least at first, because he’s a man and a man has to be man and blah blah blah, etc. When he spills the beans, she goes out and gets a job, and his masculinity is naturally threatened when she becomes the breadwinner.


Neil Simon was never radically progressive, and though you can sense “Prisoner on Second Avenue” wanting to challenge old-fashioned gender roles of a nine-to-five husband and a homemaker wife, it's a challenge from the which film routinely backs down. Bancroft suitably plays pissed off in the face of Lemmon's man-crisis, but the film plays the whole thing for laughs, as evidenced by a montage turning the Husband into the Wife and vice-versa. It's “Pleasantville” before Tobey and Reese showed up.

No, Melvin Frank's film functions far more successfully as a blackly comic portrait of a man gone mad, and then of a woman gone mad. The daily commute, the office grind, the environ, all of it wears on Edna too, and before long she’s out on the roof screaming at passerby’s below and screaming at the tenement residents up above when they scream at her to shut up. To modern eyes this film could be read as commentary on economic and employment problems, yet it's important to note she only goes off her own rocker when she gets a job. It’s a crisis of lifestyle, of place. You’re in the rat race, you want out; you’re out of the rat race, you want in. It’s a bleak idea, life as this vicious circle, and you keep wishing the film desired to be even bleaker rather than offsetting so much of its gallows humor with comfy Simon-ish one-liners and gaffes.

Nevertheless, the conclusion packs a satirical wallop, an astonishing shot imagining American Gothic framed with Tyler Durden and Marla Singer. Thine alabaster cities gleam while we sit inside our homes we can barely afford and weep.

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