Monday, February 6, 2012

Matthau/Lemmon Bowl

Last year, my wife and I established a new tradition of watching a bunch of movie comedies on Super Bowl Sunday, and this year we continued that tradition. Last year, it was just a hodgepodge of (all excellent) stuff from the 30s-40s, but this year we had a more coherent theme - 4 Walter Matthau/Jack Lemmon movies, three of which I'd never seen before.

The Fortune Cookie was I had seen, and it's still great. One of Billy Wilder's most underrated movies. Walter Matthau won his only Oscar for it, which I think is all kinds of delightful. It's a very comedic performance - not at all typical Oscar bait, certainly not in the year that A Man For All Seasons won Best Picture - so it's nice that the Academy could recognize how stellar it is.

The Odd Couple is easily one of the weirdest experiences I've ever had watching a movie. I love the sitcom a lot - I own the first two seasons on DVD, and I've been meaning to buy the others - so it was strange to see the film after all these years. And on the same set as the first season of the TV show, I think. (Does anyone know if that's accurate? It sure looked the same to me.) That said, the character Lemmon's playing isn't quite the same one Tony Randall played. He's newly divorced, so he's a lot sadder and more conflicted. Still, not bad if you like Neil Simon. I do, most of the time. And it's always nice to see the Pigeon Sisters!

In a strange way, the movie The Odd Couple reminded me of most was Buffy the Vampire Slayer - I have an enormous amount of affection for the TV show, and I viewed it as something of a not-quite-in-continuity origin story.

Billy Wilder's The Front Page from 1974 isn't as good as Howard Hawks's His Girl Friday (based on the same play by Ben Hecht, but in a vacuum it's pretty terrific. It moves like lightning, the performances are all strong, and it has a wonderful period flavor. The update of the script mostly involved adding a lot of profanity, which was par for the course in 1974, I guess. I didn't think it was too distracting, in any case. My wife has never seen His Girl Friday, and she thought Front Page was "such a great movie," and I had to agree. I'd always dismissed it, but that was silly of me. It's definitely worth watching if you're a fan of either Hecht or Wilder.

Also, it features maybe the funniest epilogue text I've ever seen. Every single character's fate is revealed in a different, funny joke. And it has both Austin Pendleton and Charles Durning in it, five years before The Muppet Movie! You can't beat that!

Finally, the best word I can think of to describe Grumpy Old Men is "cute." It's probably the worst of these four, but I enjoyed it. It helped to watch it right after those others, because the age on Matthau & Lemmon's faces really jumped out at me. They're supposed to have a history going back decades, and I believed it more because I'd just watched them age 27 years in an afternoon. I've never seen any of the three movies they did together after this one, but I imagine that "It's Jack Lemmon & Walter Matthau together! But they're old!" was probably fun exactly once.

A nice touch for us Northerners: Lemmon's character has a "Legalize Lutefisk" magnet on his fridge.

One thing I noticed that all four of those movies have in common - they're billed pretty much equally, but Jack Lemmon is always the actual lead. His characters drive the story and show actual growth, while Matthau is always the colorful support. Even The Odd Couple is the story of Felix learning to be okay with his divorce. Oscar's growth consists entirely of learning to be okay with picking cigarette butts up off the carpet.

I'm not complaining - that Matthau character would get awfully tiresome in a lead role, whereas he's used very well in all four of these movies - but it seems like no one ever really talks about that dynamic between the two of them, so I thought it was worth noting.

1 comment:

Ryan Roe said...

Grumpy Old Men is the only one of these I've seen. It's entertaining. Grumpier Old Men is pretty much you'd expect... and Out to Sea is kind of sad.

I should see those other movies. Especially The Front Page, because profanity always makes everything better.