In Lost in Yonkers, it is 1942 and Eddie deposits his two sons Jay and Arty on his mother's doorstep while he goes on the road to earn some money to pay for his late wife's hospital bills. The two impressionable boys have heard some wild stories about their father's family but are unprepared for the reality they encounter in Yonkers.
Grandma, who runs a candy store, is a hard taskmaster. Her tough-as-steel philosophy of life wielded with a harsh disciplinarian approach has traumatized all her children. Bella is a lonely, dim-witted woman who looks after her mother. She's never received a kind word of praise. Her sister Gert can't control her speech when in the presence of her mother. And brother Louie, a smalltime gangster, thinks it is to his credit that he's never cried in his life.
Jay and Arty use their wits to survive in this strange household. Louie, if nothing else, amuses then with his colorful stories. However, when Bella decides that she's going to marry Johnny, an usher at the theater where she attends movies, there's trouble on the horizon.
This fine screen adaptation of Neil Simon's Pulitzer Prize-winning play is directed by Martha Coolidge who was at the helm of Rambling Rose. She knows how to capture and convey the subtle humor and heartache at the core of familial dramas. Mercedes Ruehl recreates her Broadway triumph as Bella, a child/woman whose exuberance for life is squelched but not extinguished. David Strathairn as Johnny and Richard Dreyfuss as Louie are like alternating currents in her life as she tries to build her up her self-esteem. Irene Worth is chilling as Grandma, a woman devoid of human warmth or the ability to change. Brad Stoll as Jay and Mike Damus as Arty hold their own as the resilient youngsters who refuse to lose their souls in this depressing environment.
On a moral level, Lost in Yonkers deals a death blow to the European philosophy that survival alone counts. Grandma's unbending attitude and Louie's moxie are more appropriate to zombies than to flesh-and-blood human beings. Bella's ability to embrace life without reserve offers a better alternative. Hers is a philosophy of survival with purpose.