- Rated G
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All photos © Paramount Pictures
Reviewed by Bob Westal
he word “bromance” wouldn’t even be coined for another 42 years back in 1966, when playwright Neil Simon first presented his classic play about two mismatched best friends sharing an apartment in the wake of failed marriages. The 1968 film version is pretty unremarkable as pure filmmaking, but it is still a classic of sorts and very much the father of the long list of buddy comedies that followed. Male friendships were certainly nothing new in movies in 1968, but this was the first mainstream American film that I know of to actually be overtly about a male friendship. Young Seth and Evan of “Superbad” may owe their very existence to Felix and Oscar.
Unless you’re very young or very comedy challenged, you probably know the ingeniously simple premise of “The Odd Couple,” but here goes anyway: Felix Ungar (Jack Lemmon), a super-tidy, hypochondriacal family man, is thrown out by his wife of 12 years. Nearly suicidal and utterly alone, he is taken in by his poker buddy and best friend, Oscar Madison (Walter Matthau), an already divorced Manhattan sports writer with numerous bad habits, including being a complete and total slob, but blessed with an extremely large apartment that is still two small for the both of them. The result is the kind of great pain that also equals great hilarity.
I grew up watching the “Odd Couple” TV series with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, and I remember being taken aback by the melancholy tone of the movie adaptation, written by Simon and directed by Gene Saks, when I finally got around to watching it. Even now, I’m struck by the time it takes developing the story, the mood, and the characters. The first third of the film is devoted to simply setting up the situation, but not one moment is wasted, and the gags slowly start to pile up. From there, the conflicts build with a seemingly gradual but inexorable precision leading to a series of wrenching, yet belly laugh-inducing climaxes, until it is resolved in an anticlimactic but still sweetly satisfying coda. It never allows us to forget the cruel irony of two men leaving fraught, complicated relationships with women, only to find themselves in a fraught, complicated relationship with each other. Tragedy begats comedy.
Simon’s script is clearly among his best because it is among his least sentimental and it avoids overt drama, playing even its most painful moments for laughs. In many of Simon’s later films, the laughs tend to stop abruptly as a dark cloud descends. You’re now in “the serious part” of the film. “The Odd Couple” has no “serious part,” though it never seems to flinch from discussing serious matters, it just does so with a mix of low-key and very broad comedy.
Still, as strong as the material is here, the driving force that animates “The Odd Couple” is the absolutely remarkable chemistry between stars Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, who had only met for the first time two years prior on Billy Wilder’s “The Fortune Cookie.” Other pairings were possible – the studio apparently originally wanted to use Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason, which seems unimaginable, and the first stage version featured Matthau and Art Carney (Gleason’s foil on “The Honeymooners” television series) – a remarkable actor but not a particular box office draw. The film required Lemmon’s star power to keep things afloat, but more importantly, it benefits from its two leading actors’ brilliance as film and stage performers who thoroughly understood the differences between the two media as well as their skill at both verbal and physical humor, and most likely, their enormous offstage rapport. (Matthau and Lemmon not only made a number of films together over the years, including the “Grumpy Old Men” pictures – they became inseparable in real life, as well as in death. They are buried next to each other.)
The film’s supporting cast definitely deserves a big nod here as well. It takes a village to make a great friendship, and in this case, that village is Oscar’s weekly poker game and the group dynamics of the four strong character actors – led by Herb Edelman as Murray, a goodhearted policeman and raspy-voiced perpetual screen milquetoast John Fiedler. Livening things up in the third act are Monica Evans and Carole Shelley as Gwendolyn and Cecily Pigeon, respectively, a pair of softhearted, compulsive gigglers who are crucial to easily the funniest double date in movie history. (Remarkably, Evans and Shelley also played the part on Broadway and in the television series, though no Pigeons figured in the 1998 sequel, “The Odd Couple II,” which might be one reason I’ve never been motivated to see it. Ms. Evans and Ms. Shelley were a lovely team.)
The film snob in me wants to say that the one weak link in the “Odd Couple” chain might be Gene Saks, who directed the play on Broadway and was always more of a stage director than a filmmaker, but that gives his very real achievement short shrift. Originally, Billy Wilder (“Sunset Boulevard,” “Some Like it Hot”) was set to direct and rewrite the film with his partner, I.A.L. Diamond. Saks is clearly not in Wilder’s cinematic league, but here he perhaps delivers a better film than Wilder might have. He certainly deserves a great deal of credit for managing a successful translation from stage to screen, and for his acumen in managing the film’s talented cast. Jazz composer and arranger Neal Hefti, probably best known as the composer of the TV “Batman” theme, also deserves a lot of credit for making “The Odd Couple” work as a movie. His memorable, Grammy-winning score adds immeasurably to the film’s mood. (It was, very wisely, heavily used in the TV version as well.)
Despite being no one’s idea of a cinematic groundbreaker, “The Odd Couple” might seem leisurely to contemporary audiences, but it more than holds up. It feels different from its bromantic descendents, however, mostly because it is a rather grown-up film. Don’t let that anachronistic G rating fool you. This is a story about depression, suicidal feelings, and the very slender thread our most important relationships hang on – and that’s why’s it’s funny.
For younger viewers, it might be remarkable how much real belly laugh-style hilarity the film achieves through unvarnished emotion and old school comic technique, without the use of some of today’s comedy standbys. In fact, the closest thing to a gross-out joke is Matthau’s Oscar cradling some sandwiches in the crook of his arm while remarking that a green one is comprised of “either very new cheese or very old meat.” The closest thing to profanity stronger than “damn” appears when Oscar finally blows his stack for the first time:
"You leave little notes on my pillow. I told you a-hundred-fifty-eight times I cannot stand little notes on my pillow. 'We are all out of cornflakes. F.U.' Took me three hours to figure out 'F.U.' was Felix Ungar."
No gross out jokes; no strong cursing; no sex (beyond minimal innuendo); not even an embarrassing/cute man-on-man hugging scene, and some of the biggest laughs of any film of its era. I’d like to see Judd Apatow try that.
Centennial Collection DVD Review:
This package is a must for fans of “The Odd Couple” and highly recommended for everyone else. It’s also easily the best of the several commemorative editions I’ve recently reviewed from Paramount. Disc One features what looks to me like a flawless restoration of the original print, with a great stereo mix that beautifully highlights Neal Hefti’s score. As for extras, the disc includes a sweetly amusing commentary from the sons of the movie, actor Chris Lemmon (interviewed last year by our own Will Harris) and director Charlie Matthau. These guys clearly still have great love for their fathers, who died within a year of each in other 2000 and 2001, and they also seem to like each other quite a bit, as well as telling their pops’ favorite jokes. The younger Lemmon and Matthau, alongside such supporting players as Pigeon sister Carolyn Shelley and eccentric producer Robert Evans, also appear in a series of entertaining video short subjects on the second disc. Be warned, however, as you will hear the same stories recycled from the commentary in the features, and then again in more than one feature. Still, this one feels like a labor of love.