Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Odd Couple

Films adapted from plays can have difficulties during the creative process.  Unlike adaptations of literature, comic books, comic strips, or legends, plays usually do not suffer from an oversimplification or over-condensation of material; plays typically run about as long as feature films do.  You can usually spot a former play by the sharp dialogue, the absence of complicated action sequences, and the large number of scenes that feature only one or two characters.  Some of my favorite films have been adapted from plays (I love me some Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), but I recognize that some things that work on the stage do not work on film.  For instance, on stage, it is necessary to make broad gestures and speak loudly so the audience can hear and see what is happening; with the intimacy of movie cameras, films can be much more intimate and subtle.  Sometimes, the screenplays for these adaptations take that subtlety into account.  Sometimes, they don't.

The Odd Couple begins with Felix Ungar (Jack Lemmon) renting a room at a sleazy hotel.  He planned to commit suicide by jumping out of his hotel room window because his wife has left him.  It is not Felix's day, though; his window was jammed and he threw his back out, trying to open it.  He even failed to drink the pain away afterward, hurting his neck when downing a shot of liquor.  Felix then hobbled toward a bridge to contemplate suicide again.  I would like to take the time to point out that this is, in fact, a comedy (ranking #17 in AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs list) that opens with physical humor and the foibles of a suicidal person.  I'm not judging (yet), but I thought I'd throw that idea out there.

Meanwhile, Felix is missed by his buddies at their weekly poker game.  Felix is never late, so the group (including classic character actors John Fiedler and Herb Edelman) is mildly bewildered by his tardiness.  That bewilderment turns to pronounced concern when the host, Oscar  Madison (Walter Matthau), gets a call from his ex-wife, telling him the news of the Ungar's breakup.  Oscar and the boys immediately worry that Felix will attempt suicide; I guess his friends knew him well.  Before anyone can take action, Felix arrives at Oscar's for the poker game.  He eventually breaks down and tells them his troubles, and Oscar decides to offer Felix a room in his eight bedroom (***mouth agape***) New York City apartment (***jaw now on the floor, completely detached from face***) to stay in until he can overcome his suicidal tendencies.  You would think that two poker buddies would get along just fine in an apartment that size; even if somebody's annoying, you can just take up residence in the Northern wing.  Apparently, though, there is a small hitch.  Oscar is a slovenly person, while Felix is an obsessively tidy person.  What kind of crazy hijinks will these kids get into?  Well, if you're not guffawing at the mere thought of such an unlikely pair living together...well, tough --- that's where all of the humor in this movie stems from.

The Odd Couple is a notable comedy or many reasons.  It was nominated for two Oscars (one for writing, the other for editing), which is extremely rare for comedies.  It helps that the screenplay was written by Neil Simon, who wrote the Tony Award-winning play.  Walter Matthau starred in the play as well as the movie; this was his first comedic role in a film.  This was also the first collaboration between Matthau and Jack Lemmon, one of the most famous pairs in film history.  Even without the AFI ranking, this is generally regarded as a comedy classic.

I just wish I liked it more.  I appreciate a lot of the things this film does well, though.  The acting is well-suited for the script.  Matthau is very entertaining and Lemmon plays his part well; together, their banter is a great example of timing and chemistry.  The supporting cast is universally solid or better; I particularly liked Monica Evans and Carole Shelley as the feather-brained Pigeon sisters.  The direction must be pretty good from habitual stage director George Saks; if it wasn't good, then I doubt that Lemmon and Matthau would have worked so well together.

If all that is good, what could I possibly have a problem with?  I'm not sure.  I think it's the script.  I'm pretty familiar with Neil Simon's plays; he writes bickering friends like no other playwright, so this is obviously one of his seminal works.  I just don't like a lot of what he wrote here.  I find Felix's character utterly obnoxious.  I understand that is the point, but this isn't like other movies with buffoonish characters --- I have an active dislike for Felix Ungar.  I think Lemmon played the part perfectly for the way it is written, but his performance comes across as less subtle than a Jerry Lewis comedy and hammier than Christmas dinner.  For the first two-thirds of the movie, I not only completely sympathized with Oscar's character, but I was rooting for another suicide attempt.  I guess my problem is that the script is so one-sided.  You're rooting for Oscar, despite all the good things that Felix does because Felix's character is really, really annoying.  If that was evened out, so that Oscar's slovenly ways could be shown as truly disgusting instead of just messy, I think Felix's character would seem like less of a cartoon character.

Part of my problem might be overexposure.  While this is the first time I watched this film, it has spawned a sequel, two television shows, one animated show, and a female version of the play, all while the original play has been produced and reproduced several times over.  The idea of the tidy Felix and Oscar the slob has become omnipresent in our culture to the point that if you say that a pair is an "odd couple," thoughts immediately jump to these characters.  Then again, maybe I didn't really like this movie because my thoughts on humor are a little odd.

I mentioned that the first two-thirds of the movie were painful for me to watch; I have to admit that I enjoyed the last third.  Starting from approximately the confrontation in Oscar's bedroom (the "F.U." line is fantastic), I really got into the movie.  I liked when the two men were ripping into each other.  I liked the scene with the Pigeon sisters even more, because it highlighted the differences between the two men much better than the obvious gags and overacting from earlier in the film did.  This movie even manages to have a touching ending, which is beyond rare in comedies.  So, despite digging itself into a deep hole, The Odd Couple came back and I actually enjoyed the last bit very much.

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