NEW YORK — `LOST in Yonkers" is one of Neil Simon's childhood stories. The time is the early 1940s, the place is metropolitan New York, and two of the main characters are kids - bright, brash youngsters apparently modeled on Mr. Simon in his early years.
Their names are Jay and Arty, and they're surrounded by enough eccentric grown-ups to supply a future playwright with a lifetime of material. Dad is a wistful widower in debt to a loan shark. Grandma is a German-born dowager who survived the Nazi horrors by permanently turning off her emotions. Uncle Louie looks like a gangster, but we know that deep down he's - well, a gangster, but a relatively harmless one.
And then there's Aunt Bella, the really odd duck of the family: pretty, energetic, and afflicted with a mental disability that makes her all the more lovable yet hinders her ability to fend for herself. Her running feud with Grandma is the stuff of local legend. But nobody knows whether she'll cut the apron strings and carve out an independent life.
The movie adaptation of "Lost in Yonkers," which won Simon a Pulitzer Prize in its Broadway version, is at its best when it focuses on Jay and Arty and their impressions of family life. Martha Coolidge, who directed the picture, amusingly captures the blend of magic and uneasiness that an unfamiliar setting - and a crowd of unfamiliar housemates - can have for youngsters who are smart enough to cope with new surroundings, but not mature enough to be sure they're doing it right.
Unfortunately, the movie goes terribly wrong when Simon cranks himself up to be Serious about Major Emotional Issues, which happens in the second half of the story.
Simon is an able comic writer, and when thoughtfulness or sentiment grow naturally from the situation and characters he's developing - as in "The Sunshine Boys," probably his best movie ever - the result is genuinely touching as well as entertaining. But when he forces the issue, tackling a subject that's too weighty and complex for his brand of comedy, the outcome can be mighty distressing.
That's what happens in "Lost in Yonkers," which turns out to be the story not of Jay and Arty, but of Aunt Bella's struggle to become a grown-up despite the expectations of everlasting childhood that her family has settled on her. This is an absorbing subject, and Bella is a fascinating person to embody it. But two problems arise in Simon's treatment.
First, he spends an hour developing Bella as an endearing but incompetent woman who can literally forget to walk through her own doorway when she arrives at home. Yet in the movie's later scenes, she starts addressing her household with speeches that couldn't be more eloquent if she were a prize-winning playwright. Perhaps we're meant to think her passionate feelings have unlocked new capacities in her mind and spirit; but Simon doesn't suggest this, much less explain it.
In a further miscalculation that's still more damaging, Simon fails to follow through on these emotional fireworks. The highest point of Bella's struggle is interrupted by an incredibly stupid scene involving Uncle Louie and a stolen car; and the outcome of her dilemma is wrapped in a goopy layer of all's-well-that-ends-well sentimentality, which denies the seriousness of everything we've just been watching. It's meant to have a fashionable feel-good effect, but it's false and superficial.
Mercedes Ruehl fails to make Bella fully real despite a vigorous and sincere performance, providing final proof that Simon has done a poor job of constructing this character. Among the rest of the cast, Irene Worth has powerful moments as Grandma, and Brad Stoll and Mike Damus are solid as the youngsters of the story.
Richard Dreyfuss is amusing as Uncle Louie, although his role is more cute than convincing. David Strathairn is excellent as Bella's sadly inadequate boyfriend. Most of the supporting players are capable, except Susan Merson, who's saddled with a ghastly role (an aunt with breathing problems) that would defeat anyone.
Simon wrote the screenplay, and Johnny Jensen - who collaborated with Ms. Coolidge on "Rambling Rose," her previous picture - did the fetching cinematography.
* "Lost in Yonkers" has been rated PG for some of its thematic elements and mildly vulgar language.