Paula McFadden (Mason), a 33-year-old semi-retired dancer and divorcée with a ten-year-old daughter named Lucy (Quinn Cummings), has to become un-retired when her married, actor boyfriend Tony leaves town, breaking up with her via a "Dear John" note. Even worse is that their shared New York City apartment was leased under Tony's name, and he has sub-let it to another actor, Elliot Garfield (Dreyfuss), who's arrived from Chicago to star in a play. Paula is horrified to have a stranger moving into her apartment—and another actor, at that!—but Elliot has a lease and a key, so they grudgingly work out an arrangement in which they will share the apartment.
Naturally, romantic sparks fly.
One of the rare films for which Neil Simon wrote an original screenplay, The Goodbye Girl received five Academy Award nominations, with Richard Dreyfuss becoming the youngest person to win Best Actor up to that time (since broken by Adrien Brody for The Pianist). Remade in 2004 as a Made-for-TV Movie directed by Richard Benjamin and starring Jeff Daniels and Patricia Heaton.
- Adorably Precocious Child: Lucy, who is ten but has a very adult outlook on life, and isn't nearly as bothered about Paula shacking up with a married man as Paula is.
- Belligerent Sexual Tension: Right off the bat, as Elliot notes Paula's "shapely fanny" during their first and rather hostile meeting.
- The Big Rotten Apple: Paula is mugged in broad daylight outside a liquor store, losing her purse and all her money.
- Book Ends: In Elliot and Paula's first scene, he arrives at the apartment, then has to call her from a phone booth during a torrential thuderstorm after she tells him to go away. In their last scene, he leaves, but then calls her again from the phone booth, during a torrential thunderstorm.
- The Cameo: Nicol Williamson makes an uncredited appearance as the film director who offers Elliot a leading role in his next movie.
- Camp Gay: How Elliot is instructed to play Richard III, much to his horror.
- Damned by Faint Praise: After the horrific first (and, as it turns out, last) performance of Richard III, even director Mark Bodine's own mother can only tell him that it was "very interesting" (which Mark misinterprets to mean that she loved it).
- Deadpan Snarker: Lucy gets the best lines, like in the scene where they're watching Elliot play a gay Richard III."Looks like the guy at the beauty parlor."
- "Dear John" Letter: The film opens with Paula finding a letter from Tony on the mantel, announcing that they are not going to California for his TV-movie role, but instead that he is breaking up with her and going to Europe to play in a Bernardo Bertolucci film. He does not mention that he sublet the apartment.
- Do You Want to Copulate?: Paula has been shy and hesitant in the face of Elliot's advances, but after he stages a rooftop dinner date for the two of them, she goes straight to "Are we going to sleep with each other tonight?"
- Drowning My Sorrows: Elliot gets very drunk after reading the brutal reviews of both the Richard III show and his performance.
- Empathic Environment: A thunderstorm drenches New York as an enraged Paula is tearing down Tony's pictures after finding out he sublet the apartment.
- Fallen-on-Hard-Times Job: After his disastrous Richard III closes, Elliot winds up as a sidewalk barker outside a strip club.
- Family-Friendly Stripper: Elliot hands out fliers outside a strip club where the girls keep bikinis on.
- The Ghost: Tony, who is already gone when the film starts, but he is frequently discussed, his pictures are up on the wall, and Paula and Lucy read his letter.
- Giftedly Bad: Director Mark Bodine thinks his idea of portraying the title character in Richard III as an outrageously flamboyant Camp Gay stereotype is a stroke of genius, and nothing, including constant pushback from Elliot, will persuade him otherwise. After the first performance, during which a third of the audience members walk out in disgust, Mark's own mother is clearly trying to let him down gently by saying she thought it was "interesting", and he reacts as if a top critic has just given him a glowing review.
- Hangover Sensitivity: Elliot is much the worse for wear the morning after drowning his sorrows. When he sees Paula and Lucy for the first time, he asks which of them Scotch taped his tongue to the roof of his mouth.
- In Case You Forgot Who Wrote It: The credit in the opening titles is "Neil Simon's The Goodbye Girl".
- The Lady's Favour: Gender-swapped. As Elliot is leaving the apartment to go film a movie, just like Tony did, Paula is terrified that he'll never come back as Tony didn't—until she realizes he left his guitar, which he would never willingly give up, in the apartment. Then she knows he's coming back to her.
- Meet Cute: Elliot arrives at his new apartment dripping wet from the rain, fishes out his key, opens the door—and finds the chain on the hook. Someone is living there.
- The Mistress: Paula was this for Tony, who hadn't gotten around to divorcing his wife. She's embarrassed over this.
- Naked People Are Funny: Elliot Sleeps in the Nude, and when he can't sleep, he plays his guitar.Paula: I thought you said you were decent.
Elliot: I am decent. I also happen to be naked.
- Older Than They Look: Elliot claims to be 63 years old, though he's almost certainly being facetious.
- Precision F-Strike: Lucy has been told that Tony sublet their apartment.Lucy: He rented the apartment. What a shitheel. [Paula looks at her as if to say "What was that!?"]
- Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: As the first rule in his pushback against Paula trying to dictate the ground rules in their apartment sharing agreement, Elliot marches into the bathroom, where several pairs of Paula's underwear are drying on the curtain rod. Elliot announces that he likes to take showers every morning, "And I don't! Like! The panties! Drying! On! The Rod!" - grabbing one pair for each exclamation point before dumping the whole pile into Paula's arms.
- Screen-to-Stage Adaptation: Simon adapted the movie into a musical that premiered on Broadway in 1993, starring Bernadette Peters and Martin Short.
- Shout-Out to Shakespeare: Elliot has come to New York to star in an "off-off-off Broadway" presentation of Richard III. It is terrible.
- Stylistic Suck: Elliot's performance of Richard III, not because he's a bad actor, but because of the director's absurd premise of portraying Richard as a stereotypically effeminate Camp Gay.
- That Came Out Wrong: While Elliot is calling Paula from a payphone in the pouring rain to explain his side of Tony not telling Paula he was subletting the apartment to Elliot and not telling Elliot that Paula was still living there, he chooses his words poorly:Elliot: Look, I don't know what Tony told you, but he's got my money, I got a lease, and you got the apartment. Now, one of us got screwed- uh, let me rephrase that.
- Title Theme Tune: Written and performed by David Gates, it reached #15 on the Billboard chart.
- Walking Out on the Show: By the time Richmond is being hailed as King Henry VII of England at the end of the disastrous production of Richard III, nearly a third of the audience members have had enough and walked out. Paula and Lucy only stay to support Elliot.