Friday, October 14, 2011

#434. The Odd Couple (1968)

Directed By: Gene Saks

Starring: Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, John Fiedler

Tag line: "Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau are The Odd Couple...say no more"

Trivia:  The names of the English sisters, Cecily and Gwendolyn, are taken from Oscar Wilde's play "The Importance of Being Earnest"

The teaming of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in The Odd Couple seemed a natural pairing, what with the duo's success two years earlier in Billy Wilder’s uproarious comedy, The Fortune Cookie. Armed here with some hilarious Neil Simon dialogue, the veteran actors are at the top of their game, and together helped transform The Odd Couple into one of the funniest movies of the '60s.

Neat-freak Felix Unger (Jack Lemmon) falls into a deep depression after his wife throws him out of the house. With nowhere else to turn, he pays a visit to his friend, slovenly divorcee Oscar Madison (Matthau), who agrees to let Felix move into his apartment.

Though Felix and Oscar have very little in common, they somehow find a way to make this arrangement work

...for a day or two. 

Things begin to fall apart when Felix, still smarting from the break-up of his marriage, is less than enthusiastic about a dinner date with their new neighbors, a pair of British sisters named Cecily (Monica Evans) and Gwendolyn (Carole Shelley). When the date ends abruptly, Oscar blames Felix, and it isn't long before the two friends are at each others' throats. 

Both Lemmon and Matthau have a few funny moments on their own (at the beginning of the film, Lemmon’s Felix, whose despair over his failed marriage has driven him to the brink of suicide, plans to do himself in by jumping from a hotel window. Unfortunately, he throws his back out trying to get the window open), but it’s the scenes where the two superstars are together that truly stand out. 

I could point to countless examples of their perfectly timed give-and-take, but my favorite is most definitely the ‘meatloaf incident’. 

Felix, busy in the kitchen preparing a meatloaf for their dinner date with the sisters, chastises Oscar, who has arrived home late, for not getting there sooner to help with the meal. As the minutes pass, Oscar discovers the real reason Felix is upset: he timed the meal to be done at exactly 7:30, and now, at eight o’clock, his meatloaf is drying out. “Can’t you pour some gravy over it?” asks Oscar. When Felix points out that they have no gravy, Oscar, clearly a novice in the kitchen, says he assumed gravy just automatically ‘came’ with the meat. 

The next thing you know, Felix is threatening Oscar with a ladle.

While watching The Odd Couple recently, I found myself genuinely surprised at how little the movie has aged; it still manages to generate some hearty laughs. The credit for this must go to Lemmon and Matthau, whose timing is so precise that it’s almost scientific. In all the films they made together, including The Front Page, Buddy Buddy and Grumpy Old Men, I don’t believe they ever quite  matched the comedic precision they achieved here.

The Odd Couple proved the perfect teaming of two immensely talented performers, with each, in turn, playing their perfect role.

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