The Old Couple

I wasn't expecting great things from Grumpy Old Men. I just wanted a chance, rare nowadays, to marvel at Walter Matthau's cragginess of face and voice, to offhandedly enjoy the friction between him and Jack Lemmon -- and to be reminded of Lemmon's sinus-clearing scene from The Odd Couple. Strictly speaking, I didn't require Grumpy Old Men to be a "good movie." Unfortunately, it played well below my limited expectations for much of its interminable length. Grumpy Old Men felt much longer than the three-hour Schindler's List.

It didn't have to be this way. During the opening scenes, the rancor between Lemmon's and Matthau's crotchety characters is just about what I was hoping for, as when the two men are inside a drugstore trying to outdo one another in the severity of their ailments. Matthau wins this round by remembering an intestinal affliction that left him "farting razorblades."

The movie could stand a good deal more of this, if writer Mark Steven Johnson were sufficiently inventive. It turns out, though, that he has only a couple of good ideas here. Among the best are the ice-fishing scenes in which a little colony of Minnesotans sits inside shanties, drilling holes in ice, drinking beer and fishing. It was an agreeably odd sight to these Texan eyes, and the movie conveys a sense of community among the fishermen and fisherwomen. Burgess Meredith gets to do some scene-stealing here as Lemmon's lusty 94-year-old grandfather.

But the movie collapses once Ann-Margret shows up. Not that it wasn't a pleasure to see her again; itÕs just that she has an impossible character to portray, even if she were a better actress.

She has to bring together a compendium of cliches. She moves in beside the feuding old men, inspiring both of them to dream romantic dreams for the first time since the Carter administration. And, natch, to fight over her. This might be amusing if she had her own agenda, but instead she doesn't exist as a real character. Not even a thin, stock character.

In 1993's last word on male fantasy, she is, inexplicably, sexually attracted to both sourpusses. This even though she is a robust, youthful woman, one who would likely attract suitors more like her. The movie makes absolutely no effort to explain what she sees in the codgers. Would any of the neighbors have done just fine? And I won't even open a discussion of how her "character" isn't even a '90s cliche, but rather a fugitive from a bad '60s movie.

Once this business starts, the movie grinds to a halt. We have to learn why Matthau and Lemmon hate each other. Then we have to watch as various strands of sentimentality knot up the movie. Instead of offering Matthau and Lemmon snarling at each other, the movie gives us each man brooding in his kitchen. In short, it stops being funny in even a simple-minded way.

Grumpy Old Men is an appropriate end to the fall and Christmas movie season of '93. Unfortunately, that means it stinks.


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