Star Burt Reynolds has directed five theatrical films, this one was his second. The concept is an interesting twist on the whole “death with Dignity” movement, and in light of the laws passed in several states in the last few years, it might be seen as politically incorrect. Reynolds is Sonny Lawson, a slightly crooked real estate broker who discovers that he has a terminal blood disease and will be dead within six months. After hearing from his doctor, a rather grim prognosis of the process of the disease, he decides he is going to kill himself. Oh yeah, the film is a comedy by the way.
The story is very episodic, with Sonny running through a series of interactions with his girlfriend, ex-wife, best friend, parents and most significantly his daughter. Each brief sequence gives Burt a chance to toss off some slightly offhand jokes about dying. The only two people he tells the truth to at first are his girlfriend, played by his real girlfriend at the time Sally Fields, and his lawyer “best friend” , comedian and actor David Steinberg. Neither of those encounters goes the way he would want them to, and the awkward sex scene with Field, which is intended to be awkward, is an example of the stretch for jokes that the film makes.
There are an abundance of well known actors who show up for their one scene and then are out of the picture. Norman Fell is a dry and not very empathetic doctor. Robby Benson plays a new priest who seems to misunderstand how the confessional is supposed to work. Myrna Loy and Pat O’Brien, stars from the classic age of Hollywood are in one scene as Sonny’s slightly detached parents. This film will be a good link for people trying to win a game of six degrees of Kevin Bacon. Joanne Woodward, who was married to Strother’s frequent co-star Paul Newman, is actually in two scenes as the ex-wife without much of a heart. Kristy McNicol plays Sonny’s daughter and she is the most sympathetic character in the film. She and Reynolds interact like real people for most of their scene.
Sonny finally collects enough barbiturates from his parents to make an attempt on his life, but he wakes up not dead in an asylum. The rest of the picture is dominated by a maniacal fellow patient played with gusto by Dom DeLuise.
DeLuise is an insane man who murdered his wife and befriends Reynolds in the institution. He attempts to help Sonny out in killing himself, despite all the precautions taken by the director of the asylum [our main interest on this site]. Comedy ensues as the attempts misfire and Sonny begins to wonder if he really should exit early.
Strother in only in two scenes in the film. His screen time might amount to a minute if you generously include him waving his arms in the background of the two sequences. He does get an amusing name in the screenplay, Dr. Waldo Kling, director of the institution that Sonny has been committed to. His first scene is a “walk and talk” in the hallway of the hospital as he assures Sonny’s ex- wife and his lawyer that the institution is safe and that there is no way Sonny can injure himself.
As is often the case, Strother is playing an ineffectual bureaucrat , offering promises beyond his ability to meet, as it is soon discovered. There are a series of silly attempts by DeLuise to off Burt, they usually end up with DeLuise’s character being maimed in some way.
Sonny decides impulsively to escape from the asylum. He grabs a contractors gardening truck and drives it recklessly though the grounds of the institution. This is the second brief Strother scene. He is describing the asylum to a younger couple who are seeking a place for their elderly father. The old man is in a wheelchair and Reynolds barreling down the path towards the group, forces them to leap out of the way, in some cases off a bridge into a small stream.
That is the sum total of Strother Martin’s contribution to this off beat dark comedy.
The overall film does feel like a series of scenes that are stuck together because that is really all it is. The concept and the actors are what sell the humor in the film. In one of the best scenes in the film, the great Carl Reiner plays a psychologist who tries to convince Sonny to join a therapy group at the asylum. The doctor notes that he too is under a terminal diagnosis, but like Sonny, he looks good and seems to be thriving at the moment.
I can say I saw this film when it came out and I was entertained by it. There are a lot of laughs but it sometimes feels like an extended sketch. It is not an essential Strother Martin film, but it did come near the end of his career and it showcases how quickly he can convey the stereotypical officious authority figure. This came out the same year as “Up in Smoke”, another film that he drops into for a very brief few minutes.