Picks and Pans Review: Biloxi Blues

updated 04/11/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/11/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Neil Simon's acclaimed autobiographical stage trilogy (Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, Broadway Bound) gets shot down again as play No. 2 is stuffed and mounted for the movies. The familial fun of Brighton, about Simon's teenage years in a Jewish Brooklyn household, congealed into ethnic stereotyping onscreen. Now the poignant, pointed comedy of Biloxi, detailing Simon's World War II basic training in a Jew-hating Mississippi boot camp, receives a lulling, lobotomized treatment from director Mike (Heartburn) Nichols. Biloxi has been prettified with great period sets and props, letting the play's anger about racism and gay-bashing melt into the rosy glow of nostalgia. Matthew Broderick, as Simon's alter ego, repeats his Broadway role, laudably trying to tone down his punchy stage rhythms to normal speech cadences. No mean task since Simon's dialogue can't resist exclamation points. "It was my fifth day in the Army," says the voice-over, "and so far I hated everyone." But Nichols shoots Broderick like a movie star, cute as a button and always in control. The slumpy, smart-alecky kid he played so well onstage has gone AWOL. He's missed. So is Barry Miller, whose Tony-winning performance as Broderick's bookish Jewish buddy gave heat to the play. Corey (Angel Heart) Parker acts the role like a Jerry Lewis imitation, never hinting at the nerd's vast reserves of character. Christopher (At Close Range) Walken has done too many psychos to make the drill sergeant's breakdown much of a shock, and his New York accent wreaks havoc with his cracker role. But he at least gives the clich├ęd sarge some quirks. The ethnic names of Broderick's barracks mates (Wykowski, Hennesy, Pinelli, etc.) say it all about how they're played. Onstage, Biloxi Blues was the best of Simon's trilogy because it cut deepest into the psyche of a writer who uses humor as a defense against feeling. This bloodless screen version is strictly standard issue. (PG-13)

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