The 1986 film Brighton Beach Memoirs is based on Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical play of the same name. The coming-of age comedy-drama is set in 1937, at the tail end of The Great Depression, and follows the lives of an extended Polish-Jewish American family living in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, New York. At the center of the story is 15-year-old Eugene Morris Jerome (Jonathan Silverman, in his first starring role), who has just discovered girls, and is trying to figure out his place in life. Eugene dreams of playing for the Yankees, but knows that his skills lie elsewhere, that he’s destined to be a writer. He is always jotting down his life story in his journal, logging the crazy demands and “facts” his mother, Kate (Blythe Danner), constantly nags him about. Eugene is a bit of a smart aleck, constantly trying to pull one over on his mother, but she always seems to be several steps ahead of him. While Kate is like the tough general of the family, Eugene’s father Jack (Bob Dishy) is the decision-maker, and the person everyone goes to when they have a problem. Jack couldn’t afford to send Eugene’s 18-year-old brother Stanley (Brian Drillinger) to college, so Stanley works in a local clothing shop to help bring in money to help the family, and shares a bedroom with his younger brother.
After Eugene’s uncle passed away, his aunt Blanche (Judith Ivey) and her two daughters moved in with the family. His 13-year-old cousin Laurie (Stacey Glick) was diagnosed with a heart flutter, so Eugene is often tasked with all of her chores as well as his own. While Eugene may resent that cousin a little, he’s thrilled to have 16-year-old cousin Nora (Lisa Waltz) under the same roof. Ever since Eugene hit puberty, he constantly thinks about sex, and has been obsessed with seeing a naked female body. He regularly peeps though his window at the woman next door neighbor as she gets changed, and even plots ways to try to get a glimpse of his own cousin.
It’s a particularly crazy day around the house—everyone seems to have a problem, and things are about to come to a head at family dinner. Nora wants to drop out of school to take advantage of an opportunity to dance in a Broadway show, but her mother wants her uncle Jack to rule on the decision. Stanley stuck up for a mistreated employee at work, and now needs to either write a formal apology to his boss who was in the wrong or lose his job. And Jack also had an unfortunate turn of events at work. Meanwhile, Blanche wants to pursue a relationship with the single Irish Catholic man who lives across the street who has shown interest in her, but Kate has made her dislike for the man well-known—she says that her sister is too good for a drunkard like that. At the same time, Eugene is off in his own world with just two things on his mind—daydreaming of making the home run hit at the World Series or the game-winning touchdown, and girls.
Brighton Beach Memoirs is an entertaining and nostalgic look back a much simpler, but in some ways tougher, way of life. The film opens with a lighter tone, as typical teenager Eugene verbally spars with his overbearing mother—he would rather do his own thing than his household chores. Eugene serves as the narrator for the story, often breaking the fourth wall to talk to the audience directly about himself, his family, and the crazy things they do. Kate is constantly sending Eugene off to the local deli and butcher shop to pick up ingredients for dinner. While on these trips, Eugene is oblivious to the larger problems the family is facing, and his mind often wanders to other things, like sports and girls.
As the film progresses, and the problems of the family start to play out and multiply, things get a little more dramatic, but there’s always an underlying level of humor to help break any tension. Two of the strongest relationships in the film are between Eugene and his mother and Eugene and his brother. While Kate is constantly nagging her son, there’s real love and caring behind all of it, and this fun playfulness to the situation. Stanley and Eugene also have a fun, heart-filled sibling relationship. Stanley is constantly teasing his brother that he is going to tell Nora about his feelings, and offers his brother advice on topics that Eugene is too embarrassed to bring up himself.
Jonathan Silverman is delightful in this role, playing the innocent, wide-eyed young Eugene who is just starting to discover himself, girls and what he wants out of life. Eugene seems to always just roll with the punches and has a positive outlook on life. Blythe Danner also delivers a fantastic performance as his tough but lovable mother. The film has such witty dialogue for both of these characters, and it’s especially wonderful when they get to play off one another.
Much of the film either takes place in the house, or on the street corner by the various shops. While the number of sets are minimal, the filmmakers have done an excellent job of recreating this bygone era. The viewer is instantly transported back to this simpler time before TV and the internet, and people constantly having their faces buried in their cell phones as they walk down the street. A time when kids played outside and had to use their imaginations to keep themselves entertained.
Shout Factory’s Blu-ray release is a bit bare-bones, but still features a solid presentation. The picture looks quite clean and crisp, with just a pleasant amount of film grain. The color palette is on the muted side, but this feels intentional, to help evoke the feeling of the era, transporting the viewer back to New York City in the late 1930s. The film only features a mono soundtrack, so it doesn’t have those immersive sounds-of-the-city you would get with a more modern film. However, the dialogue remains clear throughout, and the jazzy soundtrack sounds great.
Shout! Factory usually does an excellent job compiling and expanding supplemental material for its Shout Select line of Blu-rays, but this release is a bit of a let-down in that regard—the disc only includes the film’s original trailer. The Blu-ray comes packed in a standard HD keepcase, but unlike many of the other Shout Select releases, it doesn’t include either a slipcover or reversible cover art.
- 1080p / Widescreen 1.85:1
- Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio Mono
- Subtitles: English
- Theatrical Trailer (1:26)
Presented in 4:3 full frame format
Brighton Beach Memoirs is a delightful adaptation of Neil Simon’s play, giving viewers a fun, nostalgic look at a coming-of-age story set in a different era. The film holds up quite well over 30 years later. Shout! Factory’s release features the strong video presentation that the Shout Select titles are known for, but it is more of a bare-bones release without any bonus material. That said, the film itself is well-written, filled with humor, wit and drama as well as a lot of heart. Jonathan Silverman and Blythe Danner are excellent, bringing their lovable characters to life on the screen. Despite the lack of bonus material, this an easy recommendation, especially for fans of the play/film, or Neil Simon’s work in general.