Paula (Marsha Mason) is an out of work dancer who has just been dumped by her boyfriend that she and her ten year old daughter, Lucy (Quinn Cummings), have been living with. He has left, but sublet the apartment to a struggling actor from Chicago, Elliot Garfield (Richard Dreyfuss), without telling Paula. When Elliot shows up in the rain, claiming legal rights to the apartment, Paula isn’t stupid and Elliot isn’t cruel. They agree to share the apartment.
Immediately, Paula and Elliot start butting heads. Paula’s uses her squatter status and daughter to pull her weight on setting the ground rules, but Elliot insists on his own ways with idle threats of legal action. He makes it clear that he enjoys playing his guitar in the middle of the night, sleeps in the nude and meditates every morning. The combination is great for laughs and detrimental to Paula’s beauty sleep.
Thankfully, the film doesn’t keep to an odd couple style for long. When you live with someone, it’s hard not to form a bond. With Paula desperately trying to get into a dance number and Elliot becoming more and more nervous about his controversial portrayal of Richard III, the two have enough to worry about. They realize this and become supportive of each other. It is simply respect and friendship and eventually leads to romance.
Wedged in between all this is young Lucy. She is surprisingly mature and docile for a ten year old, but perhaps that is just the product of the lifestyle her mother has exposed her to. Lucy has grown up knowing the theater world, what productions her mother was in and going to shows to support whoever her mother was dating at the time. In the opening scene, just before Paula finds her breakup letter, she and Lucy talk have a conversation that doesn’t quite sound like mother and daughter, but more like equal aged friends. The tone reminded me of The Gilmore Girls, only more intelligent and taking moments to breathe. When the letter is found, Paula is the weak one, who breaks down crying and can hardly speak. It’s Lucy who reads it aloud. Immediately, it’s established that Lucy is the tough one of the family, but still only a child.
I’ve been a fan of Richard Dreyfuss since I was about five years old and first saw him get in the shark proof cage, but his performance here might be his best ever. He brings such a bounding enthusiasm to Elliot in every way. When he puts his foot down to set some rules, he’s a perfect mixture of cunning, threatening and sarcastic. In the rehearsals and his big play, his stereotypically gay Richard III is one of those “so bad it’s good” moments that had me rolling. But his greatest achievement, and what I think won him the Oscar, was his ability to make Elliot a completely lovable, endearing, dare I say it, even adorable person without going overboard and turning the whole performance into lovey-dovey mush. Even in the moments of grand romantic gestures, he smartly keeps everything down to Earth. Only he can pull off the surprise dinner on the roof act, complete with a rented white tux and Bogart line, without feeling like a pushover.
While I can hardly stand 90% of the romantic comedy genera, I loved The Goodbye Girl. The characters are smart and believable, never cardboard or over-the-top. And the situation does not seem to far fetched. Just think how many ways this film could have gone wrong: painting a line down the middle of the apartment, ending with a race to the airport. It’s like someone was reading a Choose Your Own RomCom Adventure book and made all the intelligent and believable choices. Except for bringing that guitar out into the rain. I swear, lovey-dovey people have no common sense.
“What is it about you that makes a man with a hundred forty-seven I.Q. feel like a dribbling idiot?”