Two boys are forced to stay with their grandmother in New York after their father leaves home to work. They meet various characters there, not least Bella, her 36 year old daughter is somewhat retarded. The film then turns into the story of Bella and her rebellion against her tyrannical mother.
When their desperate father takes a distant job in the summer of 1942, Jay and Arty (Brad Stoll and Mike Domas, both terrific wisecrackers) are left to their understandable horror with oddball relations in upstate New York. Maternal grandma (Worth) is an ice cold old bag, while good-hearted spinster Aunt Bella (Ruehl) is not playing with a full deck at 36 she's skipping around in pink dresses, ankle socks and saddle shoes.
Adapted by Neil Simon from his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, this is centrally the story of Bella's need for love and her rebellion against her domineering mother, as recounted by the captive boys, while for largely comedic purposes, Dreyfuss arrives as brother Louie, a petty hood on the lam. Some will no doubt loathe Ruehl's performance which is arguably too broad for the screen affecting when pursuing a forbidden romance with an equally dizzy cinema usher (Strathairn) and startling as an impassioned ally for the boys, but is she actually batty, retarded, stunted by a monster mother, or what? The result is the odd great scene, but rather more irritatingly affected ones.
Presumably Ruehl hoped she would be a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination by playing Bella but sadly the dialogue wasn't convincing enough, nor was her performance and she went home empty handed. Dreyfuss arrives unnecessarily but is a welcome distraction, lifting the mood of the film.