Who is Max Dugan returning to, you ask? Ah, that would be Nora McPhee (Marsha Mason). She could use a break. Everything in her life is going haywire. She’s trying to raise her teenage son, Michael (Matthew Broderick), all on her own. Everything in her house seems to be breaking down. On top of it all, she can’t turn her back without her mode of transportation (whether it be car or motorcycle) stolen. You know what would help her out? Cash. Lots of it. That’s just what Max Dugan (Jason Robards) brings when he shows up at her doorstep one rainy night. Max Dugan is Nora’s long-absent father. Turns out, he’s been spending the last few decades committing crimes and getting revenge on some real estate brokers.
Now, Max Dugan has an illness that’s given him only six months to live. He’d like to live with Nora McPhee for a little time under a new alias so that he can have a chance to connect with the grandson he never knew. Nora doesn’t exactly like that idea, especially since she’s gotten romantically involved with police officer Brian Costello (Donald Sutherland). Max Dugan tries to assuage her worries by using all of his money to buy her and Matthew every lavish gift you could imagine. The greatest gift of all, though, are the moments where Nora and Matthew get a chance to actually connect with the long-absent Max Dugan.
The best way to describe Max Dugan Returns is that it’s the perfect rainy Saturday afternoon movie. It’s undemanding, it doesn’t break the mold, but it proves perfectly pleasant in its own right. Part of that comes from Neil Simon’s screenplay. Nothing in Max Dugan Returns approaches Simon’s best work as either a screenwriter or a playwright. Still, Simon knows his craft well enough to ensure that Max Dugan Returns remains perfectly agreeable. Probably the best aspect of Simon’s writing is how it’s able to involve overt displays of sentimentality without coming off as treacly.
Similarly, over-the-top sight gags involving Nora McPhee’s house being littered with state-of-the-arts gizmos or being house overhauled into a mansion could have felt out of place. But Simon constantly keeps the characters just enough in focus to make the uber-apparent qualities of Max Dugan Returns tolerable. In other words, Simon always has a character-related purpose for these unconcealed moments of poignancy and humor. Additionally, Simon smartly keeps the whole production running at a manageable 98 minutes. Meanwhile, his decision to make Max Dugan a charming schemer rather than someone super malicious goes a long way to making the whole wacky plot work like it does.
If Dugan was someone that was doing this whole family reunion for self-serving reasons (as I suspected early on in the runtime), it would be really hard to make Max Dugan Returns work as a touching comedy/drama. By committing to a more sincere character, Max Dugan Returns prospers. Still, a number of details do keep the film from being more than just a fine diversion. Chief among them is Donald Sutherland’s romantic interest character. He just doesn’t work as either a believable person or someone you wanna see Nora McPhee end up with.
He does turn out to be a great source of comedy at least. It’s unintentionally amusing just how quickly he commits to a romantic relationship with a woman he just met. A third act scene depicting Brian Costello divulging how he knew Nora’s dad was a crook also had me laughing mostly because of Sutherland’s stern expression and decision to place his hands on his hips. Not every character in Max Dugan Returns is a winner. A bold statement, I know, but I knew I was gonna drop some hot takes when I entered the Max Dugan Returns discourse.
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