Jack Lemon and Walter Matthau were a hit film duo long after The Odd Couple, and even before (their first pairing occurred in the smash The Fortune Cookie, from 1966). Then in 1993, with both actors pushing 70, they starred together yet again in the charming sleeper Grumpy Old Men, which did well enough to merit a sequel two years later, and another reunion, Out to Sea, in 1997. And so, with Neil Simon desiring at least one more chance to get his name back on the silver screen, a sequel The Odd Couple seemed like a no-brainer. Simon penned the screenplay (likely his last) and it naturally starred Lemmon and Matthau reprising their roles as Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, respectively.
The film starts with Oscar down in Florida, still sloppily hosting his poker parties, only this time with elderly women (some with strict dietary requirements). And when a call comes in from his son he’s elated to learn of the boy’s upcoming marriage. Not so elated, it seems, to learn the idenity of the girls dad: none other than Felix Unger, his age-old nemesis. Both plan on attending the wedding, with Oscar picking Felix up at the airport in southern California, then driving the rest of the way to he venue. Easier said than done. With Oscar’s still slovenly inclinatins and Felix’s unceasing anal-retentiveness (not to mention that annoying-as-hell sinus problem), their road trip is a disaster on wheels. It’s Murphy’s Law time once again as their car rolls down a hill and explodes, they try to hook up with two women on the run from jealous husbands, and they get arrested three times by the same sheriff (for charges ranging from the transport of illegal immigrants to the murder of a elderly gent who offers to give them a ride, then dies suddenly at the wheel). Well, they get to the wedding, with Felix finding a potential love interest and Oscar having to ease his son’s pre-wedding jitters. And when Felix gets back home, he finds Oscar, jilted by his new flame, once again needing a place to crash. Everything old is indeed new again.
Yes it is, especially in Hollywood, where the rule is - never let a franchise go unmilked. A modest hit, I’ve no doubts there could even have been a #3, but both stars’ health was not good at he time: Lemmon was battling bladder cancer at the time, the disease to which he would succumb in 2001, and Matthau passed a year earlier from heart disease. But you sure wouldn’t know it from the way these guys perform; true professionals to the end, they look and act here as good as they did in their heyday. And it sure is good seeing them in these roles again after an astounding 30 years. While the first half hour or so really doesn’t define their beloved roles so much – they could easily be playing the codgers from Grumpy Old Men – they gradually start assuming them again: Felix the neatnik and Oscar the unabashed slob. But we also get the mutual affection that so distinguished the original. As antagonistic as they are to each other, it all but masks a profound friendship, one enriched by our knowledge that these two actors have just as deep a relationship in real life.
And what about Simon’s screenplay? How does this third unofficial member of the Odd Couple fare? I guess the best I can say about his script is that it’s serviceable. The wordsmith hasn’t lost his touch with the puns and the witty banter, but they serve a pretty routine story, one we’ve seen for years and years before this. The idea of a road trip with an id/superego matchup was perfected, in my opinion, with Planes, Trains and Automobiles, so here it just seems a bit stale. Sure it’s amusing that the bumbling twosome repeatedly get arrested, but their charges are as unlikely as they are contrived. And the subplot involving the Mexican immigrants seems so cringingly racist. Sorry, Neil, you might have gotten away with the stereotypes in The Out of Towners and The Prisoner of Second Avenue. But this was 1998, and by then the “joke” of smuggling a dozen or so tamale pickers across the border just wasn’t funny.
Things improve toward the end, when both characters get beyond the hijinks reveal themselves through dialogue – the forte of all talents involved. There are a few heart-tugging moments at the wedding itself: Oscar counseling his nervous sire with a bit of reverse psychology (Simon loves this bit, going all the way back to the final segment of Plaza Suite), and Felix acting like a nervous schoolboy in his attempts to woo “the love of his life.” And the final ten minutes are a delightful paean to the original movie, with a near-perfect replication of the classic poker scene with Felix taking everyone’s lunch order. That combined with the immediately recognizable musical theme, was a skin-tingling moment for me. And I don’t often experience that at the movies nowadays.
This is most likely Simon’s screen swan song, and I think it’s a good one, showing that he’s come full circle in his career. One could see this metaphorically – the two beloved characters he created in his heyday are still going strong, weathering all manner of misfortune, ups, downs, romances, marriages, divorces, births, deaths. But in the end, all that truly matters are the laughs. Without those, can we really call ourselves agents of enjoyment? A human is the only species that can laugh, that can smile. This life’s too goddammed short not to avail ourselves of that one true gift – one bestowed on the old and the young, regardless of creed, race or culture.
Thanks, Neil, for giving that to us. And for telling some pretty fine stories to go with it.
Stage: None, just revisiting a couple of old friends.