On the stage, Neil Simon's "Lost in Yonkers" must have been quite enchanting, since it took both a Tony as best play and a Pulitzer Prize. But like many of Simon's works, the film seems soft at the center and overly sentimental.
Still, as directed by the sure hand of Martha Coolidge ("Rambling Rose") and with Oscar-winner Mercedes Ruehl ("The Fisher King") in the lead, it's an enjoyable picture, well-cast and carefully "opened up" from its stage roots.
Set in 1942, in Yonkers, New York, the story is told from the viewpoint of two young brothers, Jay (Brad Stoll) and Arty (Mike Damus), with Jay providing a voiceover narration.
As the film begins, their mother has recently died and their father finds it difficult to make ends meet especially since he has acquired some debts that won't wait. So, he takes a job selling scrap metal, which requires him to hit the road
for a year, and reluctantly places Jay and Arty in the care of his harsh, seemingly unfeeling mother.
Grandma (Irene Worth, reprising her Tony award-winning role) lives in an apartment over her candy store, along with her thirtysomething daughter Bella (Ruehl), who is apparently mentally impaired and whose childlike behavior is encouraged by her mother.
The boys work in the candy store, get into general mischief and begin a treasure hunt for Grandma's hidden stash of cash (hoping to find enough to bring their father home).
Meanwhile, Bella goes to the movies a lot, escaping into the fantasies of the big screen, and begins a tentative romance with a slow-witted theater usher (David Strathairn) who also lives with his parents.
And soon they all find their lives disrupted when Bella's brother Louie (Richard Dreyfuss), a small-time hood who is never without his handgun or his mysterious briefcase, drops in for a brief stay and opens new vistas to the boys. (Shades of Simon's "Max Dugan Returns.")
Simon, of course, balances all of this with equal parts warmth and one-liners. And, with Coolidge directing in a straightforward manner and the performers all delivering their lines with wit and style, it works pretty well.
Ruehl is the standout here, with what could have been a showy and over-the-top role. Instead, she remains rooted in reality but still manages to make the character funny and charming. Worth is also quite good, as are Dreyfuss, Strathairn and the boys (young Damus is especially appealing, with his Bogart-like slight lisp).
All in all, an entertaining, old-fashioned film that audiences should find most pleasing.
"Lost in Yonkers" is rated PG for some violence, profanity and vulgarity, none of it extreme.