Max Dugan Returns

Max Dugan Returns. 20th Century Fox 1983.

Before watching the movie:

This seems strongly positioned as a guardian angel/Mary Poppins kind of movie, but I think that’s just metaphorical, and hopefully tongue in cheek. The movie I would really like this to be is Max Dugan dropping into his daughter’s life expecting to fix everything and be instantly forgiven and failing miserably on both accounts, then working to earn his way back into her family and in the process making things better. That’s the plot vibe I’m getting from this movie, and I hope the magical trappings are just because it’s the kind of art Neil Simon brings to a project, because if it’s as straightforward as it looks, that would easily become too simple and saccharine.

After watching the movie:

Nora McPhee can barely keep food on the table for herself and her son Michael on her teaching salary.  Then her car gets stolen. Police Detective Brian Costello is sympathetic, rents her his motorcycle, and asks her on a date, and then Nora gets a visit from her father Max Dugan, who disappeared on her and her mother almost thirty years ago. Max has found himself in possession of a fortune he embezzled off of a casino in restitution for the way they used political might to strip him of land that he owned and they wanted, as well as a six-month prognosis. Max wants to offer his legacy of hundreds of thousands of dollars to Nora in exchange for spending his last few months getting to know his grandson. Nora won’t accept stolen money, but does allow him to stay in the guest room for a week. And then the gifts start arriving, and Nora finds herself juggling questions about where they’re coming from, and who this “Mr. Parker” she’s letting the room to is anyway.

I didn’t quite get to “Max inveigles his way into the family despite his daughter’s wishes, and his increasingly showy fairy godparent act keeps making it harder for her to cover for him”, but pretty close.  I also didn’t guess that Nora’s son would be awed by the windfalls and lobbying to keep them, but it seems pretty obvious now. Despite that, surprisingly few scenes run on the dramatic irony of people who know different things interacting. Max’s stories about his identity to Michael are a lot of fun, Nora’s inexpert deflections to Brian are just painful.

I was expecting something a little more feel-good. Things don’t quite get tied up as positively and upliftingly as seemed to be suggested by the promotional material. Max is charming, but the movie around him isn’t as memorable as the character deserves, and given the title I did check to make sure this wasn’t a sequel or anything. This is less an upbeat comedy about a family coming together and more an offbeat family that can’t really make it work.

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