A comment on the comedies starring Jack Lemmon & Walter Matthau

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Recently for the first time I watched the 1993 comedy ‘Grumpy Old Men’. It starred the acclaimed Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau as the title characters constantly indulging in petty battles against each other. Over the years the critical and public consensus seems to have been that while it’s no classic, the film is a pleasure to enjoy, mainly because of seeing Lemmon and Matthau work together again, backed up by a quality veteran cast.

However notwithstanding a handful of amusing moments, I found the film to be very underwhelming. Mediocre on every level, all the clichés of hack Hollywood 1990s comedies are on display with the only source of humour seemed to be the elderly swearing and being obnoxious. As well, the concept that someone as attractive and sophisticated as Ann-Margret’s character would consider – let alone fall for – both Lemmon’s and Matthau’s dreary characters was too much for even a film like this to bear.

On its own, GOM wouldn’t be worth commenting about. But in the broader context of the comedies that Lemmon/Matthau made it was of significance. Namely that it illustrated to me how overrated and disappointing as a whole the Lemmon/Matthau comedies were.

Lemmon/Matthau appeared in seven comedies from 1966 to 1998* and the only really quality film of the lot was ‘The Odd Couple’ (which I reviewed here) where their talents shone thanks to a wonderful Neil Simon script.

Otherwise their films I’ve seen were disappointing or worse (I haven’t seen their 1974 effort ‘The Front Page’).  Their first comedy was the 1966 Billy Wilder film ‘The Fortune Cookie’. Notwithstanding that Matthau got an Oscar for his performance as a lecherous lawyer (and making him a major star), the film is far from their best work, or for Wilder for that matter.

However the film is a masterwork compared to their 1980s/1990s efforts. Wilder reteamed Lemmon/Matthau in 1981 for the film ‘Buddy Buddy’ with Matthau playing a hitman constantly interrupted by a suicidal Lemmon. After a few initial amusing moments, the film is an almost total washout that ended Wilder’s career and arguably his worst film.

After Grumpy Old Men and its 1995 sequel (unseen by me), they made the equally mediocre ‘Out To Sea’ and a dispiriting 1998 sequel to The Odd Couple. All these films seem to be interchangeable from one another with only the settings (a snowbound town, a cruise ship, a road trip) different. And Lemmon and Matthau by now are going through the motions that they don’t even offer much entertainment and the supporting players are more appealing.

And yet the Matthau/Lemmon partnership (if not their films specifically) always seemed to be treated in the public domain with great fondness. The public seem happy enough to see them together no matter how weak the material and critics gave them a free pass despite not particularly liking the film. For example Roger Ebert’s review of ‘Grumpy Old Men’ basically has little positive to say about the film but then refers to Lemmon/Matthau in the most positive light to more or less give the film a pass.

And I’m speaking as someone who is a fan of both Lemmon and Matthau’s work – over many decades they displayed themselves as not only skilled comedians but also very strong dramatic actors (e.g. Matthau in ‘Fail Safe’ and Lemmon in ‘The China Syndrome’).

But it seemed that whenever they got together to do a comedy (especially in their later years) their laziest aspects came to the fore and they just went through the motions of another humdrum film, knowing that critics and audiences would give them a pass because of their hallowed status.

The films that Lemmon/Matthau appeared in together are often mentioned as the equivalent of seeing old pros at their best – in my opinion it was the very opposite as they were a display of them at their weakiest. Almost anything else in their respective careers are better viewing than these.

*Lemmon and Matthau also appeared together in the 1995 film ‘The Grass Harp’ (not one of their standard comedies and unseen by me). They also appeared in the 1991 drama ‘JFK’ but not in any scenes together.

5 responses »

  1. Ironically, The Front Page is the only one of the seven films that I have seen. It’s a very pale imitation of Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday, even down to what appear to be possibly the same sets.

    I actually like Matthau, but Lemmon is typically grating to me. Giving him Rosalind Russell’s part in The Front Page was definitely not a trade that worked in Wilder’s favor!

  2. I’ve only seen The Fortune Cookie and The Odd Couple (several times, it’s one of my favorites) and I think those other films were trying to exploit the success of the first two. And I agree that Lemmon, unchecked, could rely on technique alone, but when strongly directed, as in The China Syndrome, The Days of Wine and Roses, or Save the Tiger, he could be brilliant. And he’s a hoot in Mister Roberts, which established his career persona.

  3. He was miraculous in Glengarry Glen Ross.
    He’s a master of his craft, nothing less.

    I haven’t seen Grumpy or Grumpier Old Men in quite a while, but I remember liking them very much.

  4. Yes, Matthau does come off better of the two in these 1980s/1990s films. His performance was the only redeeming feature in ‘Buddy Buddy’. By ‘Out To Sea’, Hal Linden and Donald O’Connor in supporting roles were more entertaining than the leading pair.

    In addition to the films JS mentioned, Lemmon was great in ‘Missing’.

  5. Probably the best giveaway that Lemmon/Matthau’s 1990s films were just lazy cash-ins on their reputation is the directors they worked with – Martha Coolidge, Howard Deutch (twice) and Donald Petrie; all with track records which suggest mediocre sitcom-like treatment of comedy.

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