Max Dugan Returns (1983)

Film and Plot Synopsis

In Max Dugan Returns, Nora is a single mother who lives with her son Michael in a small house in Los Angeles. While they don’t have much money, they do have each other. One rainy night, Nora’s estranged father, Max, pays her a visit out of the blue; he left her and her mother when Nora was nine years old. Max carries with him a suitcase full of money, and begins to shower Nora and Michael with gifts before he dies of heart failure. It appears the money comes from some shady dealings in Las Vegas, and the policeman Nora is dating takes a bit of an interest in her father.

‘Max Dugan Returns’ Movie Summary

The summary below contains spoilers.

Max Dugan Returns (1983)Max Dugan Returns begins in the Los Angeles, California neighborhood of Venice. There we meet the widowed Nora McPhee (Marsha Mason) struggling to raise her son, Michael (Matthew Broderick), on an English teacher’s salary.

One morning, on the way to school, Nora stops off at a shoe repair shop. While inside for less than five minutes, someone steals her 1964 clunker of a Volvo after she left the keys in the ignition. Police Lieutenant Brian Costello (Donald Sutherland) arrives to the scene to take her information, and he’s immediately smitten with Nora. He takes her to school as she’s now late for the first class, and she seems genuinely interested in the officer too.

After school, Nora and Michael look for new cars in the paper, but with Nora barely making ends meet as is, she does not really have any money to buy something worthy. Brian shows up out of the blue, and offers her a motorcycle to use that he bought at a police auction. He takes her out around town for a quick spin and a riding lesson. When he drops her off, the two make a date for Saturday night.

Late that night, Nora receives a mysterious call from a man who does not identify himself, but says he’s nearby and must see her. A few minutes later, he shows up, and reveals himself to be Nora’s estranged father, Max Dugan (Jason Robards), whom she has not seen since before Michael was born. Besides abandoning Nora years ago, she’s on edge because her father is something of a conman, and does not quite trust him.

After he pulls the shades down in her house, Max reveals that his doctor has given him about six months to live. He opens up a briefcase filled with $687,000 he embezzled from a Las Vegas casino after it swindled him out of land he rightfully bought fresh out of six years in prison. The money in the case is Nora and Michael’s inheritance, but even though she and her son barely have enough money to survive, she wants nothing to do with him or his dirty money.

However, Nora isn’t heartless, and Max is one of the few remaining relatives she has left. She lets him stay the night, but he must leave in the morning. In the morning, Michael meets Max who introduces himself to his grandson as Mr. Parker, and the two take a liking to each other. Nora agrees to let Max stay a bit longer.

Over the course of two weeks, Max, as Mr. Parker, will shower the two with lavish gifts, a new car, and needed home improvements. However, after Brian’s first date with Nora is a disaster, Brian becomes immediately suspicious that she’s gotten herself into something she can’t get out of. He sees many of her new gifts; including $5,000 in cash that mysteriously falls out of her purse, and he questions her on how she can have all that as a single mother on a teacher’s salary.

Instead of telling Brian some semblance of the truth; that her very well off estranged father is trying to buy himself back into her and her son’s life before his ends in a few months, and that the rest isn’t something she’s comfortable talking to a man whom she’s only known less than a week, she lies to Brian. Brian’s cop instincts kick into gear, and over the course of two weeks, he begins investigating Nora even if it means losing her as a possible love interest.

Eventually Brian (and Michael) learn the truth about Max; that both the Las Vega Police and mob are looking for him for embezzlement. Max, looking to protect his daughter, deposits $400,000 into an account for her. He then leaves Michael and Nora a video saying goodbye, and slips out in the early morning hours while everyone sleeps.

The movie ends at Michael’s big baseball game at school. Brian’s son Kevin (Brian Part) pitches against Michael. Michael hits the winning run off of Bill as Max watches from the shadows. He buys Michael’s ball from some boys who picked it up off the ground, and steals Nora’s Mercedes he bought for her.

Brian introduces Bill to Nora and Michael after the game, and the four of them decide to head to Pizza Hut for a new lunch and a new life. Nora tells Brian that Max is headed to Brazil to live his remaining days on a sandy beach which puzzles him. He can no longer tell if Nora’s lying to him or not.

Nora and Michael head back to her car only to find it gone. Max honks and waves goodbye as he drives off into the sunset. Don’t forget to mail your doctor your extra cigars, Max. He’s expecting them.

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Twentieth Century Fox released Max Dugan Returns to theaters on March 25, 1983. Herbert Ross directed the Neil Simon film starring Jason Robards, Marsha Mason, and Donald Sutherland.

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