Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Odd Couple (1968)

One year after hitting it out of the park with Barefoot in the Park, Neil Simon wasted no time with another Broadway play, and his sophomore effort was another classic. Using the same opposites-attract theme he used for romance in Park, he crafted a story of male friendship – his Odd Couple was indeed an odd pairing: one as fastidious as he is neurotic, and the other as slovenly as he is….. neurotic. Well, in a Simon play you have at least that in common, aside from being funny as hell.

So we neet Felix Unger at the post-mortem of his 12-year marriage, and potentially the pre-mortem of his life. He’s so depressed he requests a high hotel room – and it ain’t for the view. His suicide attempts are thwarted only by his nagging back pains, and so he winds up going where he normally does – his friends’ poker game, hosted by Oscar Madison, sportswriter who enjoys living in filth; even his roaches have had enough! The boys are tipped off by Felix’s wife that he’s so down in the mouth, so they do their best to keep him “up.” The only thing that works is Oscar’s offer for him to be his roommate, which he accepts.

A match made in hell? Not so much at first; Oscar thinks it’s perfectly peachy to have a clean pad and
cooked meals every night. But the next week’s poker game, “catered” by Felix, is thrown off when his BLT’s are a hit, but not so much his disinfecting of the playing cards. Oscar is coming to wits’ end, but he has a salve for their tensions: women. In particular, the English Pigeon sisters, and a double date is arranged, despite Felix’s insistence that he cooks the entire meal.

But the date begins with an argument: Felix is miffed that Oscar is late from work, and that his meticulously-prepared meatloaf won’t be good after much longer. The girls arrive mid-melee, but Felix keeps it together long enough to be congenial, if not smoothly conversational. He becomes so emotional talking about his divorce that he makes both girls, divorcees themselves, bawl like open faucets as well. So empathetic are they, and how burned the meatloaf is, that they invite the bachelors upstairs to their place. Oscar is over the moon, but a still-emotionally distraught Felix says no dice, despite his roommates exhortations to reconsider. Their acrimony has come to a head now, culminating with Oscar’s furious query, “Is this the kind of person you’ll always be?” – the next day neither one speaks to the other.

And again, after hope that the two will mend fences, they squabble until Oscar demands Felix’s immediate departure. He leaves – but Oscar is again nagged by guilt that Felix’s suicidal feelings will return. They don’t; the nebbish neat-freak has found a hostel at the Pigeons, where his sensitivity may very well be a better fit. Oscar requires thanks – twice – once for his hospitality and the other for his well-timed eviction. And Felix seems to have cut ties with Frances, emotional and otherwise. The films brilliant last line belongs to Oscar, though: “Watch your cigarette butts on the carpet, boys, this ain’t a pig sty!”

Now it's gahh-bage
How does lightning strike twice? For Neil Simon, easily, apparently. The second of his one-two punch on the Great White Way is a sublime exercise in perfectly-written, and executed, two person comedy (Felix and Oscar are roughly 80% of the film). The formula is in place here, and it works like a charm. The setup of the characters is as engaging as it is fast-pased (not to mention arresting – we are dealing with a suicide here, albeit humorously). The conflict comes naturally… and hilariously. And the “crazy situation” (I’m still trying to come up with a name for it), the date with the sisters, fosters a greater examination of the characters’ multilayered facets – especially Felix’s. (Interesting how Simons’ sources of conflict derive, so far at least, from bad dates/dinners).

One thing that surprised me after seeing this film for the first time in many years is how Simon amped up the conflict between the two by making them so opposite. We’re not talking subtle differences here; these two guys are night and day – with about a thousand time zones in between. Felix would nowadays be diagnosed with OCD – he is constantly, I mean constantly, cleaning, sweeping, picking, parsing. He missed his calling as a sanitarium attendant. And Oscar has no problem serving brown and green sandwiches. (“What’s the green?” “It’s either very new cheese or very old meat.”) So polarized are their personalities that the script could so easily make it incredible that they’d cohabitate for as long as they do, but Matthau and Lemmon imbue their characters with so much humanity that we do see the mutual respect that lies underneath.

Then, of course, there’s another Simon trademark: seriousness. It always seems to be in there, although it doesn’t always jump out at you. The topic dealt with as such: divorce. And The Odd Couple was one of the first films to tackle the nascent social issue. Boy, does it ever – both main characters are divorced or about to be, and the two sisters are also separated (one technically a widow). A thorny topic, to be sure, but Couple handles it masterfully, particularly when Felix goes to pieces during the date, precipitated by “the worst part of it” as he hands a picture of his children to the women. And Oscar’s lateness with his alimony payments is not necessarily a laughing matter either, but he, and we, must crack jokes about it in order to deal with the pain.

Not much to say about the Lemmon/Matthau chemistry; it was obviously so good they went on to make several films together (including a sequel to this one). But I am impressed by their sense of intelligence. Lemmon especially has always been a favorite of mine, and I think that’s because of his depth. He’s played vulnerable, fragile, downtrodden, pathetic – but all with a sense of self-awareness – which probably accounts for the pathos surrounding all his roles. Matthau is just the perfect comic foil- he takes an appearance that could be written off as caricature and turns it into a real human being.

But it always comes down to the writing in a Simon film, so if you’ll allow me to close with a favorite scene, I’d like to:

OSCAR: “ Last night I found you washing the kitchen floor, shaking your head and moaning, "Footprints, footprints!"

FELIX: I didn't say they were yours.

OSCAR: “Well, they were mine, damn it. I have feet and they make prints. What do you want me to do, climb across the cabinets?”

FELIX: “No! I want you to walk on the floor.”

OSCAR: “I appreciate that! I really do.”

(Don’t know why, but I found this absolutely hilarious!)

Rating: ****

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