The movies made from Neil Simon's plays often tend to be bright and superficial, buzzing with wisecracks like some comedy display window. But "Biloxi Blues" (citywide) is an exception; it has some marvelous moments.
Simon--recalling his life as a 1945 Army recruit in Biloxi, Miss.--evokes a time of grueling routines, tyrannical noncoms, sadistic privates, infernal heat, prejudice, fights and incredibly lousy food. He remembers sergeants who threatened to kill him, trainees who wanted to thrash him, a buddy discharged in disgrace. Then, he confesses he loves it in retrospect, "because I was young."
The sentiment may seem sappy, but "Biloxi Blues" lets you share it. Director Mike Nichols--who staged some of Simon's early Broadway hits but none of his movies--helps turn the story into something darker, richer, more underplayed: nostalgia with pinpricks of pain, in a mood of hard-edged reverie. And the actors--especially Matthew Broderick as Eugene Jerome, the Simon surrogate--seize on it.
Broderick is re-creating his Broadway role; so are Penelope Ann Miller, Matt Mulhern and Park Overall, who has a wonderful, smoky-voiced scene as a Biloxi prostitute. Broderick acts with a beautifully wary exuberance, full of a puckish vulnerability and anxious, twisted impishness.
Eugene is an outsider, easing his way through painful situations with jokes. That's why he gets accepted and why his fellow Jew--the principled, intransigent Arnold Epstein (Corey Parker)--doesn't. Arnold, in a way, is Eugene's conscience, the Jew who won't play ball, while Eugene is always in the batter's box, swinging his quips.
Like "The Odd Couple," "Biloxi Blues" is a male bonding comedy, and Simon and Nichols play up the instinctive ties springing up among the wildly dissimilar recruits (all excellently played): Eugene, Arnold, the brash bullies Wykowksi (Mulhern) and Selridge (Markus Flanagan) and the more sympathetic Carney (Casey Siemaszko) and Hennesey (Michael Dolan). The movie's main images are of a cultural desert, haunted by death--and Simon's script focuses on the three outsiders, including one secret homosexual, who can barely adjust to it.
At first, the boys' main persecutor, Sgt. Toomey (Christopher Walken), suggests a more suave version of Norman Mailer's sadistic Sgt. Croft. Toomey, with a metal plate in his head--full of lazy malice, eyes slithering around with menacing vagueness--subjects them to lacerating humiliations and fiendish games. It's a strange piece of casting; Walken initially seems too handsome for the role. But his Toomey has a fine whacked-out sense of danger: ice-glare behind lizard lids, a grisly dead-behind-the-eyes look.
Nichols gives the piece a funny, fragile somber mood that works almost completely. He's done a lot of the movie in virtuosic long-take, deep-focus shots: full of detail, with layer on layer of background noise, like an Orson Welles movie. But the whole visual style--enhanced by Paul Sylbert's expert designs and Bill Butler's moody camera work--also comes from George Stevens' movies and Norman Rockwell's '40s Saturday Evening Post covers. Nichols uses that Rockwellian frame--that consciously innocent and idealistic, humorous vision of America, with its slightly cockeyed supernaturalism--to point up the oddball unity of these characters, who become linked figures in a dreamy, elegiac vision.
Nichols seems to have perfect pitch when he's working with Simon. He doesn't punch up the wisecracks the way other directors do, or stage scenes as if the primary point were to get to the jokes. He picks up the jokes and laughs on the way to something else. Few other modern American directors would have shot the first dance between Eugene and Daisy (Penelope Ann Miller) at the USO hall with such stately fear and dizzy desire: The camera stays on them, eye-level, never cutting, and they whirl slowly, rapt, while gritty, prosaic details leap out of the darkness.
Simon's curse has always been his facility. But in "Biloxi Blues" (MPAA-rated: PG-13 for sex and language), he's had the courage to be honest, and it makes the comedy work in a different way.
Simon's not going too deep here. It's probably not in his nature, and that may be why, true story or not, he lets every character off the hook at the end. But he goes deep enough. And Mike Nichols gives "Biloxi Blues" the background density it needs, plus an eerie romanticism.
At the end, Eugene's reverie reminds you of Holden Caulfield's in Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye"--when he feels nostalgic for everybody, even Maurice, the pimp who stole his money. Sometimes bad or mixed memories carry strange consolations, become golden in retrospect.