Same Time, Next Year
Director: Robert Mulligan. Cast: Alan Alda, Ellen Burstyn, Ivan Bonar. Screenplay: Bernard Slade (based on his play).

Photo © 1978 Universal Pictures
Forget everything you know about the play being a sizeable hit on Broadway in 1975, about Ellen Burstyn winning the Tony for her stage performance and then an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe for repeating it on screen. Same Time, Next Year is an unmitigated disaster, based on a script full of limping, instantly dated punchlines that doom the performances: the only thing for Burstyn and Alan Alda to do with their lines is to pretend that two human beings would ever say them, which means "humanizing" and in many ways underplaying a script that could only ever, possibly, imaginably work if it were hurtled forward as breathless farce, preferably with a massive re-write by Joe Orton, or at least Wendy Wasserstein, rather than this Neil Simon manqué called Bernard Slade.

As is, the script is unsalvageable, because it's all grounded in a single conceit that Slade can't even find it in him to manage. Burstyn and Alda have a spontaneous one-night stand at a lakeside cabin in 1951, and then resume their tryst on the same day once a year ever afterward. We only check in with the characters every five years or so, during which they show a sharp predilection for utter and comically desperate transformation: Burstyn is a space cadet and then a glamorpuss and then a pregnant knitter and then a hippy and then an entrepreneur and then a grandmother, while Alda is a schlub and then a guilt-ridden schlub and then an impotent schlub and then a Goldwater-voting suit and then a psychotherapy fanatic and then an older sort of schlub. What no one seems to notice is that the characters don't seem to have noticed any of these changes during any of those annual rendezvous that we don't witness. Even though they've checked in with each other four or five times amidst what, for the audience, are very sudden about-faces, the characters are nonetheless just as stunned by each other as we are. Slade keeps writing one-dimensional backstories, suspiciously grounded in the months immediately preceding each scene, that laboriously "explain" these capricious evolutions—Alda voted for Goldwater because his son was shot and killed in Vietnam, etc.—but these reaches to justify every zig and zag only heighten the superficiality and implausibility of the whole thing. In a film full of puzzled reaction shots and mystified dialogues, we never understand why the characters are so puzzled, nor do we believe their words or their arcs, nor do we care about any of it. Burstyn gets to indulge in more ersatz range, hopping among more disparate stereotypes than Alda does, but whatever comic gene might have allowed, say, Carole Lombard or Barbra Streisand to barrel through this material with comic aplomb, Burstyn doesn't have. She's an essentially serious actress, visibly preoccupied with "real" details and "subtle" accents, when the part needs to originate in comedy rather than psychology, energy rather than studiousness. Alda comes across both better and worse because he only has one basic way of reading any of his lines. His limits as a performer, charismatic though he is, are evident throughout, though at least he isn't straining himself quite so much to look comfortable.

About halfway through Same Time, Next Year, I realized that one of the reasons I was hating it so much was that the glib photo montages that slip 'n' slide us across all the years missing from the screenplay—completely predictable images of Eisenhower and JFK and Elvis and Janis Joplin and protests and assassinations and space landings—serve not to ground the characters in history but to highlight just how inane and fundamentally disconnected from the world they are. You would never know there was a world surrounding or affecting their lives, based on how they get together for their scheduled liaison and make dumb wisecracks about failed erections and marital discontents. The movie predicts Forrest Gump in boiling history down to clichéd typologies that drain both movies of any relevance or recognizability as human stories, never more so than when the movies go blindly hunting for just this kind of relevance. This further weakness became painfully clear when Same Time, Next Year finally called my bluff with the unimaginable actor's-workshop business about Alda's slain son. In fact, as the story progresses, and the characters' concerns become more contemporary, the movie gets more and more ridiculous. Wouldn't you know, for example, that when Burstyn pursues a catering business and starts making money, her husband doesn't love her anymore—prompting Alda, her erstwhile suitor, to fix her ailing marriage to her permanently unseen husband in one single, bizarre phone call. Satisfied neither to be honestly frivolous or sincerely ambitious, Same Time, Next Year winds up giving a bad name both to comedy and to drama.

That this script is all but interchangeable with so many fêted American plays of the 1960s and 1970s, by Simon and his many imitators, is a dispiriting commentary on American theater itself. Just when political crises truly upset and transformed the public sphere, and popular cinema at least strived to keep pace, the Broadway stage retreated into these canned and hollow diversions, and gave awards to them, and made movies of them, this one starring two of the decade's most politically dedicated actors in the very act of desiccating their art. Burstyn was on-stage in Same Time, Next Year the night she won her Oscar for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, which speaks well to her professional loyalties but not, perhaps, to her ability to judge good material. No matter how debatable are Alice's pseudo-feminist impulses, its characters are thoroughly believable, their jokes legitimately funny, and they seem credibly, multi-dimensionally alive. The film of Same Time, Next Year is almost certainly worse than the stage show was; for one thing, it's been saddled with a dreadfully gloopy song, belted out by Johnny Mathis and an unrecognizable female vocalist at every possible opportunity. Like this song, there are plenty of other blemishes and scars on the surface of this film, but what's most truly and deeply wrong with it sits right down in its core. It's the kind of bad movie that makes you doubt the movies collectively, based on the kind of terrible play that makes you despair for all plays. Grade: F

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Actress: Ellen Burstyn
Best Adapted Screenplay: Bernard Slade
Best Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Best Original Song: "The Last Time I Felt Like This"

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Actress (Musical/Comedy): Ellen Burstyn
Best Actor (Musical/Comedy): Alan Alda
Best Original Song: "The Last Time I Felt Like This"

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