The Odd Couple is basic in its plot, but is memorable in its content. The film follows Felix Ungar (Jack Lemmon), whose wife has recently separated from him. He is down on his luck and suicidal, yet Felix ends up at the apartment of his closest friend, Oscar Madison (Walter Matthau). At the insistence of their mutual friends, Oscar decides to let Felix share his apartment with him to give him time to get back on his own feet. Almost immediately the differing patterns of living between Felix and Oscar clash: Felix is a neat-freak, a hypochondriac, and neurotic while Oscar is a messy, free-spirited individual. The film follows their clash of personalities as their living together equates almost to that of a married couple. Ultimately the film is about their friendship and how they learn to deal with each other’s idiosyncrasies while maintaining their respect for each other.
Playwright Neil Simon adapted his Broadway play into this film which was a immediate critical success when it was released into theaters in 1968. Given the environment of the 1960s when divorce was still relatively taboo within society, The Odd Couple directly debunked such taboos by providing a storyline that emphasized divorce did not immediately mean being ostracized. Instead, The Odd Couple is effective in showing the need to ‘move on’ and for one to realize that divorce did not necessarily mean it was the conclusion of one’s love life, but merely an opportunity to create a new chapter in one’s life. This sentiment is the entire basis of the film, which is centered around Felix needing to move on with his life in order to truly attain happiness. The film is also effective in presenting the opposite sentiment with Matthau’s Oscar Madison. The film grounds his character on needing someone to care for him in order for him not to settle for lesser-living. Despite being comfortable living as a slob, it is a crutch to emphasize “I am ok on my own and I can do what I want,” when in actuality he discreetly likes someone thinking of him. The comedy of the film falls in that it is Felix who is providing that care to him, which offers some of the film’s best laughs due to the absurdity of their situation.
The Odd Couple has no real flaws to it other than it being very general in its plot structure. The film establishes Felix and Oscar’s friendship quickly, but never strives to go into any backstory as to why or how they are close. It is left to the film viewer to answer that question since the film immediately introduces a scenario when two friends help each other out. Yet what the film offers in generalities still offers some memorable comedic moments and one cannot deny the excellent friendship chemistry between Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. The Odd Couple is a definite must-see comedy.
In order for The Odd Couple to function as a comedy, it hinges on the on-screen chemistry between Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. If either of them failed to represent a genuine friendship, the film wouldn’t have functioned at all. Furthermore, Jack Lemmon had to distinguish his character from his character’s best friend to truly represent a clash of personalities. This extended beyond his scripted activities of continually cleaning and cooking, but in how he presented himself. Jack Lemmon’s performance is manic and highly neurotic, which offered a style of acting that was him talking fast while continually moving. Lemmon’s strategy with his performance was to give viewers a visual performance that would explain why Oscar would be annoyed with Felix’s behavior, while also conveying innocence in the performance by having Felix be clearly well-intentioned in his actions.
It goes to say that Jack Lemmon’s performance is a very physical performance, one that doesn’t necessarily rely upon the dialogue. It’s his mannerisms that film viewers remember most, such as the scene when Felix is attempting to clear his sinuses in front of Oscar while they are at a diner, to which he makes enough noise that all patrons are watching them. Such moments go beyond the words of the script, which relied on Jack Lemmon being entirely physical in his performance. This placed a heightened expectation on Lemmon to first have the conviction to do the scene convincingly, but to also provide a level of realism to such moments. There had to be a certain level of audacity in Lemmon’s performance that allowed viewers to believe such behavior was possible, yet laugh at the lunacy that someone would actually behave in such a manner.
The believability of Lemmon’s performance is due to him playing the role straight. Lemmon didn’t strive to make the role comedic, but rather placed the character in comedic situations. The character is reactionary, which is where the comedy of the performance stems from. This kept the role from veering into slapstick territory. If anything, Lemmon’s performance is a purely satirical portrayal of the neurotic New Yorker. On a comedy standpoint, Jack Lemmon delivered this performance excellently. For this performance he was nominated for a Golden Globe, which was very much deserved.