Thursday, November 18, 2010
Grumpy Old Men
John Gustafson (Jack Lemmon) and Max Goldman (Walter Matthau) are neighbors and competitors in a never-ending battle of petty jokes and pranks. Anyone else would admit that they are actually best friends --- they go to all the same places and do all the same things --- but these two have an imaginary grudge from years ago, and "Hello, dickhead" is as friendly as they get. Actually, these two pay closer attention to each other than ordinary friends do; they either accompany each other around town, or peer through their window shades to see what the other is doing. That rivalry heats up when a new neighbor moves in across the street. Ariel (Ann-Margret) is exotic in this small, icebound town; she is not only in their age group and still attractive, she is from California and has all sorts of weird possessions and hobbies. Ariel introduces herself to the townsfolk by going on an informal date with (seemingly) the town's entire senior citizen class. That means John and Max are in direct competition for the last hottie either of them will ever have a chance with. "Hello, dickhead" is starting to sound downright inviting.
The story of Grumpy Old Men is not fantastic or complicated. It's really nothing special at all, except with the inclusion of ice fishing, something you rarely see in films because it's even more boring than regular fishing. There are subplots and complications, secrets and reveals, but this story is just an excuse to see two old men insult each other for 100 minutes.
That's not a bad thing, mind you, but its effectiveness definitely depends on the cast. Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau are both wonderful in this movie. Their interactions are so natural and so nuanced, but the insults creative; their chemistry makes it feel like you're not watching a movie, but the dialogue is witty enough to remind you that this had to have been written down at some point. It feels like director Donald Petrie didn't even have to direct his stars, just let them loose. The nice thing about this movie is that both Lemmon and Matthau have opportunities to show the depth of their characters, so they're not just insult machines, like the Friar's Club roastmasters. Most of the noteworthy supporting cast was fine (Kevin Pollack, Daryl Hannah, and Ossie Davis), but their roles had limited impact on the quality of the film as a whole. Anne-Margret did a pretty good job, although I'm still not sure about some of her character's choices; name one old person that moved from a warm climate to ice fishing territory and didn't have family nearby. And she dates Matthau? Isn't he a little out of her league? Burgess Meredith, in his small supporting role as John's father, is what bumps this movie up from "pleasant" into "funny." With the rest of the cast, this is an above-average comedy, but Meredith is hilarious and improves the entire movie.
No, Grumpy Old Men is not revolutionary or unexpected. It's comfortable and engaging and sweet. And Burgess Meredith is amazing. In a drama, I would care more about the story, but this is a comedy with three old men saying some pretty funny things that only the elderly can get away with. It's interesting to think how much less funny this movie would have been with the same cast, only twenty years younger. This is one of the only Hollywood movies that requires its actors to age gracelessly, and they do it well.