Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With the release of Andy Samberg’s Palm Springs and the latest Ghostbusters sequel getting pushed to 2021, we’re highlighting movies starring Saturday Night Live alumni.
“Three examples constitute a trend,” goes the journalistic adage, and movie-star pairings that happened exactly twice rarely get perceived as especially notable. (Few people liked Joe Versus The Volcano at the time—what the hell was wrong with everyone?—but its existence nonetheless helped to solidify Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as a duo.) The world really needed one more Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn vehicle, if only to ensure that their uniquely goofy chemistry will be properly remembered. Despite having been Saturday Night Live’s first breakout success, Chase initially had real trouble anchoring big-screen comedies on his own, as anyone who’s endured Oh Heavenly Dog (admittedly co-starring Benji), Under The Rainbow (nominally co-starring Carrie Fisher) or Modern Problems (basically co-starring cocaine) will remember. Making movies opposite a foil as gifted as Hawn was one of his smartest career moves.
Seems Like Old Times, their second collaboration, wasn’t as well received as 1978’s Foul Play, and likewise tends to be less fondly remembered today. In part, that’s because it’s an unusual variation on a beloved formula. Neil Simon wrote the screenplay in homage to Hollywood’s comedies of remarriage (though Stanley Cavell hadn’t yet bestowed that name upon the subgenre), taking particular inspiration from 1942’s The Talk Of The Town, with Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, and Ronald Colman. Here, the estranged couple are Glenda (Hawn), a defense attorney with a self-destructive predisposition to helping the needy, and Nick (Chase), a terminally sarcastic writer who, in the opening scene, gets kidnapped by criminals who force him to rob a bank on their behalf. On the run from the cops, Nick turns to his ex-wife, who’s since married aspiring district attorney Ira Parks (Charles Grodin). She secretly installs Nick in their ludicrously expensive house’s guest room over the garage, attempting to help without falling for him all over again.
Grodin actually got Razzie-nominated for his supporting role in this film, which just goes to show how utterly misguided the Razzies have always been. (Other nominees that inaugural year included Brian De Palma and Stanley Kubrick, for their “terrible” work directing Dressed To Kill and The Shining, respectively.) Grodin is playing what Michael Showalter would later dub the Baxter: a perfectly nice guy whose function is to represent the unexciting, anti-romantic life that the female lead must inevitably reject. What makes Seems Like Old Times special—and perhaps frustrates some viewers—is its atypical uneasiness with that notion. Chase portrays Nick with maximum blithe smirkiness, making him too much of an arrested adolescent to seem remotely viable as a long-term mate. Grodin, meanwhile, takes Ira’s exasperation to such playful heights that he genuinely comes across as well-suited to Glenda, in his own dorky way. While the movie cheats a bit via its lame epilogue, it generally suggests that Glenda was right to divorce Nick, even though she still loves him. That’s a fairly radical idea for a romantic comedy, especially one written by Neil Simon.
Simon does throw in some of his standard one-liners (“The house looks lovely,” someone says, admiring its interior, “what have you done to it?”; Glenda’s airy reply: “We had it re-shingled”), and Seems Like Old Times gets more traditionally funny as it goes along, culminating in one of those climactic free-for-all courtroom scenes in which the flustered judge can barely keep track of what’s going on. Mostly, though, the film—directed by Jay Sandrich, who otherwise worked almost exclusively on such revered, persona-based sitcoms as The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Cosby Show—relies on the basic situation and its stars’ charisma. Hawn, in particular, rises to the occasion; Glenda spends a great deal of time attempting to prevent Ira from knowing that Nick is still around, and her efforts frequently achieve the daffy desperation of vintage Lucille Ball. (Try to ignore the fact that she spends the rest of her time struggling to rehabilitate people of color who can’t stop breaking the law. At least there’s some counterpoint courtesy of Robert Guillaume.) The film’s great failing may have been convincing Hawn and Chase that they should stay away from each other.