Movie review: ‘Max Dugan Returns’

mdrBack in the day you knew you were in for a treat if you saw a film announced as “Neil Simon’s.” It meant you would get the best in dialogue from among the best actors of the day. Simon is prolific (he has more combined writing Oscar and Tony nominations than anyone else) and he cut his writing teeth in television and became really big on Broadway – can you say “The Odd Couple” or “Barefoot in the Park”? Simon then earned accolades for adapting his plays to the screen and audiences knew that the dialogue would be crisp, intelligent and funny on both intellectual and fun levels. I’ve reviewed two of the “Neil Simon’s” films and today I’ll take a look at “Max Dugan Returns.” It occasionally makes the rounds on movie networks and if you find it, you’ll appreciate it after more than 30 years or you’ll discover something worth watching.

‘Max Dugan Returns’
(1983; 98 minutes; rated PG; directed by Herbert Ross and starring Jason Robards, Marsha Mason and Donald Sutherland)


(NOTE: I expanded this review with additional opinion, some additional trivia and the updating of links on Feb. 18, 2017.)

Just as Chuck Lorre has had the hot hand in sitcoms for more than a decade (“Two and a Half Men” and the current No. 1 TV comedy “The Big Bang Theory” – click here for my look at it), back in the day Neil Simon had the hot pen (typewriter?) in Hollywood. He was the master of dialogue and his films usually starred the best actors of the day and they always delivered. Consider them money in the bank, each in their own time.


As for Simon, you’ll find one of the best examples of his work in the repartee between Alan Alda and Jane Fonda in “California Suite” (click here for my review). However, one of the least-remembered and one of his few box office bombs is “Max Dugan Returns” and it is really superior in my opinion. I like it first because it has Jason Robards and Marsha Mason and is the big screen debut of Matthew Broderick (whose other film, “WarGames” – click here for my review – came out the same year earned three times the box office of “Max Dugan Returns”). Secondly, it is a rarity for Simon: an original screenplay that is not an adaptation of one of his plays. Finally, I like it because it is ultimately watchable; has endearing characters; and that it oozes total quality.

So, for those variety of reasons, I’m looking at “Max Dugan Returns” today.

A ton of back stories accompany “Max Dugan Returns” and the trivia associated with Broderick is only the most remembered. Others include it being the final of five collaborations between Simon and Mason (who were married then but divorced four months after the film’s release); it was Keifer Sutherland’s first film, too, and he’s here with his famous father Donald but they don’t have any scenes together; and it had one of the nicest real-world cameos: legendary baseball hitting coach Charley Lau of the Chicago White Sox plays himself (in a sad turn of events, he would die of cancer the year after “Max Dugan Returns” was released).

In “Max Dugan Returns,” Mason, who plays schoolteacher “Nora McPhee” is a single mother raising her son in near-poverty. They’re happy but she’s on a bit of a bad luck streak when a mysterious man pops in on her one rainy night. It turns out to be Jason Robards as “Max Dugan” and he’s her long-estranged father. He’s got a satchel full with $687,000 he’s scammed from Las Vegas casino owners who cheated him out of valuable property. Robards needs to hide out for a bit and he wants to get to know his grandson, who is “Michael McPhee” and played by Broderick.

Now the film gets really fun as Robards plays on Mason’s emotions by saying he’s dying of cancer (you never really believe that he is) and he’s allowed to stay and begins to buy them – everything. He redoes their modest rental home; gets her a new car; and outfits Broderick’s bedroom with every technological gadget available at the time. He even hires Lau to teach Broderick the “philosophy” of hitting in baseball

In the parallel storyline, Mason has begun dating Donald Sutherland, who plays “Lt. Brian Costello.” He’s the cop who is called to investigate when her car is stolen and he soon his attention turns to the mysterious Robards and why things happen like $10,000 in cash falling out of Mason’s purse in a restaurant. He finally figures everything out but backs off at Mason’s insistence during a youth baseball game where Broderick, after Lau’s coaching, hits a home run to beat Sutherland’s son (an actor, not Keifer – he has another bit part).

The last you see of Robards is as he drives away in the car he bought Mason – apparently going to drive to Brazil.

Here’s a look at some of the outstanding cast:

  • Four-time Oscar nominee (not for this one) Mason is nearly as good here as she was in “The Goodbye Girl” – not quite, but definitely in the same ballpark. She shows depth in her character and all too easily becomes one with the role. It’s simply wonderful to watch her. Mason was also solid in the dark drama “2 Days in the Valley” (click here for my review) and was in “Heartbreak Ridge” with Clint Eastwood, in an understated and under-appreciated role.
  • Robards, who was a two-time Oscar winner (“Julia” and “All the President’s Men”), is pitch-perfect here as the likeable grandfather who is feeling his own mortality (whether from cancer or not). Robards looks like he’s having fun with the role and makes it all look too easy. He was also in “Philadelphia” and was the total jerk of a grandfather in “Parenthood” with Steve Martin (click here for my review). Robards was nominated for one other Oscar for “Howard and Melvin” and died of lung cancer at 78 in 2000.
  • Golden Globe nominee (not for this one) Broderick began his movie career with this one as if he’d been in 10 already. He’s fun, engaging and endearing – all difficult traits for an actor to convey to a camera, much less a young man at the age of 21 when the film was released. He’s especially good as the baseball student with Lau. Broderick would go on to iconic parts such as “Ferris Beuller’s Day Off” (for which he earned his Globe nomination) and the kid-friendly “Inspector Gadget.”
  • Two-time Golden Globe winner and five-time Globe nominee Sutherland plays one of his more conventional characters here as the hard-working cop who’s looking for love and finds it with Mason. He doesn’t have much of a chance to make his “Brian Costello” character jump out at the audience, so you could call him competent and workmanlike here. He played the only hippie in World War II in Clint Eastwood’s “Kelly’s Heroes” (click here for my review) and was the original “Hawkeye Pierce” in the “MASH” movie (no asterisks in the official film title credits; they were put in on the movie’s posters) and did a wonderfully nasty turn in “Panic” (click here for my review). Sutherland won one of his Globes for the terrifically dark murder mystery from HBO called “Citizen X” (click here for my review).
  • Emmy nominated Dody Goodman, who was the school secretary in “Grease,” is Mason’s energetic and nosy neighbor. It’s not much of a role, but her distinctive voice is instantly recognizable. Goodman was wonderful in the Tom Hanks-John Candy comedy “Splash” (click here for my review) and made a mark on television with the quirky “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.”

Max Dugan Returns” was the 40th ranked film of the year with $17.6 million in ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo. It came in right behind the classic “A Christmas Story” (39th with $19.2 million – click here for my review). Nineteen eighty-three was an excellent year in cinema with the No. 1 film “Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi” with $252.5 million. Here are the other films from 1983 that I’ve reviewed:

Assorted cast notes (via

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2015-17.
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