Wallace Markfield's novel, To An Early Grave, was a bitter, satirical dissection of Manhattan's middle-class Jewish intellectuals, a book peopled by the kind of quarrelsome critics and lecturers who read Partisan Review for laughs. All things considered, it was not a very promising subject for a movie, but Director Sidney Lumet took a crack at it anywayjettisoning most of Markfield's literary humor in favor of Jewish situation comedy. The result, called Bye Bye Braverman, has a lot to talk about, and nothing much to say.
Leslie Braverman, a celebrated critic, dies suddenly at 41. Among the mourners are four of his friends: a flamboyantly mustachioed fund raiser (George Segal); a gruff, insecure womanizer (Jack Warden) who, upon hearing the bad news while in bed with his girl, dutifully removes his toupee; an oleaginous scholar of comic books (Sorrell Booke); and a Talmudic professor-lecturer (Joseph Wiseman) who wears an expression of perpetual disgust, as if he were forever smelling fried ham.
The four set out for Braverman's fu neral, bickering all the way to the Brooklyn synagogue. Sometimes the quarrels center around Booke's Volkswagen, an offense to Wiseman's anti-German sensibilities. Sometimes the men vie with each other in a heated trivia contest (who were the members of the Rinkydinks?). When the quartet collides with a Negro cab driver (Godfrey Cambridge), their debate rises to tidal proportions, only to unroil when the cabbie turns out to be a convert to Judaism. The mourners arrive late for the services and giggle derisively as a rabbi (Alan King) intones a gross caricature of a eulogy for the deadbefore they finally discover that they have stumbled into the wrong funeral.
That is the script's mainand almost onlyjoke. As the story's central character, Actor Segal shows flashes of a comic talent hitherto unexplored by Hollywood. But what picture there is for stealing is burgled by Wiseman with his portrayal of a stereotypical literateur. As lofty as Edmund Wilson, he pronounces Jehovah-like judgments on literature and humanity, while for his livelihood, he caters to audiences of culture-ridden housewives who beg, "Please, my Debbie wanted me to ask you about Philip Roth."