Home Video Hovel: Brighton Beach Memoirs, by Alexander Miller
Given the excessive level of nostalgia in our contemporary media, is it fussy or selective to make the distinction between whether or not it’s historical, cultural or personal? Perhaps that’s why Brighton Beach Memoirs feels so refreshing. With so many shows and movies relying on timely humor and pop culture references, the reappraisal of something like Brighton Beach Memoirs stands out thanks to the strong sense of contextual juxtaposition subtly powered by Neil Simon’s script and a cast of low-key power players.
It’s a simple film in the best possible sense of the word. Gene Saks’ direction is smart, economical and clean but the film’s frequency is at its strongest because seasoned film scribe Simon knows how to strike an unemphatic fluency with a blend of comical romanticism that’s both personal and nostalgic. Brighton Beach Memoirs looks to the past but isn’t regressive, nor does it pander to a generational demographic. The tightest element is the setting. This is, without a doubt, New York in the 1930s. The family is working poor and very Jewish. Carrying us through the varied narratives turns of the Morris Jerome family is Eugene. He’s the youngest of the two brothers. The house is crowded with his brother, parents and aunt, recently widowed with two daughters. As if that weren’t enough, Eugene is navigating the perils of puberty to boot and the kid is an oozing mess of adolescent curiosity. Eugene is a sounding board, a surrogate Neil Simon, and his frank portrayal of certain “growing pains” is shrewdly brilliant. The film travails the inherent awkwardness of puberty at its apex and all the baggage that comes with it. The material is a revealing turn and the delivery is wry and slides into the manifold quirks that steadily populate the film. Simon’s script is clever but never descends into self-satisfied territory. Eugene is our guide, our protagonist, and his wall-breaking quips maintain the pace and the rhythm. It’s a breezy experience because we like Eugene and the Morris Jerome family. Jonathan Silverman’s performance makes Jerome a squeaky-voiced cipher who somehow channels the cultural, political and societal tenor through the experiences of a Jewish family and their relatable family traditions and rituals. Whether it’s getting advice from your wise older brother, lamenting the chores and errands appointed by your mother, pushing around the food on your dinner plate because it seems gross (and you’re too young to appreciate a hot meal), finding your father unapproachable while glued to the news or realizing that you’re not a freak because everyone masturbates, Brighton Beach Memoirs knows how to ride a wave of unique familiarity.
The term “slice of life” is a bit of a cliche but Saks and Simon work in harmonious tandem, making Brighton Beach Memoirs a smart and fun viewing experience that retains a timeless quality in its suave construction. Simon’s comedic chops were solidified with The Odd Couple and were finely tuned in his collaboration with Elaine May (The Heartbreak Kid) but Brighton Beach Memoirs is closest to Biloxi Blues as they both play on a relaxed formula of idiosyncratic relatability.
Shout! Factory Select has been distributing a thread of movies that veer from the more cult/schlock territory of their proper line but they still have an eye for superlative fare that might be overlooked or underseen (Kalifornia, Suburbia, The Boxer, etc.) and Brighton Beach Memoirs fits into their unpredictably fun rubric. The transfer looks and sounds excellent. Though short on bonus features this Blu-ray is a delectable treat for anyone in need of a revisit or newcomers alike.