From the late 1960s to early 1980s one of the safest bets in the Hollywood film industry was a film based on the work of Neil Simon. An enormously successful playwright, he proved to be very appealing on film because of his exceptional comic skills, especially in writing witty and memorable one-liners.
The 1968 film ‘The Odd Couple’ – based on Simon’s 1965 play – is probably his most famous effort and one of his most successful films. It’s an apt reflection of Simon’s work, showcasing not only his many strengths but also his weaknesses.
Like many of Simon’s works, the plot is simple but appealing. Two long-standing middle-aged friends with recently broken marriages move in together and their contrasting personalities cause much friction. One, Felix Ungar (Jack Lemmon), is neurotic, uptight and obsessed with cleaniness while the other, Oscar Madison (Walter Matthau), is lazy, laidback and a slob.
The film is not without its flaws. As the ‘raison d’etre’ of the film is the byplay and relationship between Felix and Oscar, sections of the film where they’re not sharing scenes feel like padding (especially the opening 15 minutes which feel flat and dragged out). And Gene Saks’ direction is rather sluggish and uninspired, making it feel like it’s a filmed version of the stage play instead of a film in its own right.
But once Felix and Oscar come together, the film is a joy to watch. Not just because of the often superb one-liners and comic situations Simon creates, but because of the skilled performances and terrific chemistry Matthau and Lemmon have. They help ensure these are fully-fledged characters, making the film far more interesting through their relationship than if they’d become the caricatures they could have easily become.
The film’s peak is reached with a lengthy scene where Felix and Oscar have a double date with a pair of somewhat eccentric British sisters which is a masterclass of comic writing, timing and acting. Equally as good is the feuding between Felix and Oscar following the double date disaster which as a contrast has some very funny silent visual comedy followed by dialogue from Oscar listing his grievances about Felix which is probably the highpoint of the film.
Overall, this is an excellent comedy that deserves its reputation as one of the funniest Hollywood films of the last 50 years… and yet despite its many outstanding qualities this film can’t be rated as a truly great film. And in an unusual way Jack Lemmon’s performance exposes some of the reasons why.
Lemmon’s performance as Felix seems almost too truthful and honest as it inadvertently exposes the limitations of Simon’s work. The authenticity of Felix’s pain as he goes through divorce seems to clash with the tone of the film which wants to keep things at never more than a skin deep level, invariably falling back on smart one-liners at key moments instead of taking a risk and attempting something more rewarding. As good as a gag writer Simon was, even in his best works there was something constricting and even brittle about characters constantly engaging in conversations so heavily doused with one-liners and snappy retorts. As one critic one said, Simon’s films often feel like the main characters have professional gag writers living with them. That element is present in just about all of Simon’s works and probably prevents films like this from evolving into all-time classic status.
But one shouldn’t detract from the many exceptional qualities this film has. It is a top-class comedy that has held up very well over the years and one can only wish in vain that modern comedies of today would have acting and writing as sophisticated and funny as this.