I can remember seeing television ads for Max Dugan Returns at the time of its release back in 1983. I wasn’t a big time movie fan yet, but I remember the film looked somewhat interesting. However, at the time I figured I needed to see Max Dugan 1 before seeing his return. I’m not trying to make a joke there, I seriously figured it was a sequel. I probably wasn’t the only one to make that mistake since it wasn’t exactly a runaway hit at the box office.
The film focuses on Nora McPhee (Marsha Mason) and her 15-year old son Michael (Matthew Broderick in his first movie role). They’ve been having a bit of a hard time since the death of Nora’s husband. They’re renting a run down house in a somewhat lousy neighborhood, Nora barely gets any sleep due staying up grading her students’ papers all night, and on this particular morning her car ends up stolen as well. Luckily, there’s a trusty police officer, Brian Costello (Donald Sutherland), on the case who also happens to have eyes for Nora.
Then one evening, Nora gets a visitor in the middle of the night. It’s her ex-con father Max Dugan (Jason Robards) who she hasn’t seen for over 15 years. He comes with a briefcase full of money, over $600,000 in fact, which he got working as a dealer in a Vegas casino…and skimming off the top. He also tells her that his doctor tells him he only has a few months to live. All he wants is to get to know his grandson and pass on the money in the process.
Nora wants nothing to do with the money, but allows Max to stay at the house. He does not tell Michael he is his grandfather, however, choosing to go by the name of Mr. Parker. At first Michael thinks it’s a bit strange to have this old man living in their already cramped house, but he soon gets used to it. Things turn strange, though, when Nora and Michael come home to tons of new kitchen and stereo appliances which Max has bought.
Though Nora tells him he can’t do this, the lavish gifts continue. Max buys her a new car, totally remodels the house, and even gets Chicago White Sox hitting coach Charley Lau to help Michael with his baseball swing. It starts to become hard for Nora to hide all this from Officer Costello, who is constantly stopping by with roses. He soon starts to realize something is up and begins to figure out the truth behind this strange visitor to her home.
Max Dugan Returns is written by Neil Simon, so you’ve got to expect that there is some good scripting here…and there is. The film is peppered with several funny lines here and there. In fact, at times it seems a bit of a stretch that so many of the characters are capable of regularly dishing out comedic zingers…but I guess that’s Simon for ya. Clever dialogue, however, is only part of the equation. Unfortunately, in this case the dialogue is in service of a story that really goes nowhere and actually turns very predictable by the time we reach the third act.
The performances are quite good, however. Marsha Mason is very convincing as a struggling single mother. Robards also does a fine job, though I felt that his character should’ve been a bit more grizzled given some of his back story. Broderick is also quite good in his first movie role. He was 20 years old at the time, playing 15. Of course, he would go on to play more teenage roles in films like Wargames and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I actually think he got better at playing a teen the older he got. His age shows in this film a bit more than it did further down the line. Be sure to look hard at Broderick’s school friends in this film and you’ll also spot the young Kiefer Sutherland, also in his first big screen job.
In the end, Max Dugan Returns ends up having some solid scripting and acting, but in a story that ultimately is pretty flat. Perhaps the first film is better. Oh, wait…right, this isn’t a sequel.