The Film and Performance:
The best comedies are the ones that somewhat mirror true life yet exaggerate it just enough that we can laugh at the hypocrisy that surrounds us. This is not an easy achievement for any film in the comedy genre to do. It has to be done with such careful precision, almost like an acrobat walking a tightrope over a high distance. Often comedy films fail to find that balance. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are poor comedy films, but rather they fail to meet their maximum potential. Writer Neil Simon is perhaps one of the greatest comedic writers of all time primarily because of his ability to find that proper comedic balance. His writing often represents those who aren’t normally listened to, embellish upon their story, provide comedy that touches on exaggerated realism, but also functions as a form of social commentary. Simon tended to focus on middle-class characters, many of whom were relatable to the average moviegoer. He was once quoted as saying that his writing was aimed to reflect real people in dramatic situations that veered into comedy territory. That is where the strength of Simon’s work truly lies. This is why The Out-of-Towners is a film that hinges on its script, and due to the script’s strong foundation, the film is a stellar achievement of comedy.
The Out-of-Towners takes the basic premise of wanting a better, more prosperous life and manipulating it for comedic gain. Jack Lemmon and Sandy Denis star as George and Gwen Kellerman, a married couple who travel from Ohio to New York City the eve before George is to have a job interview that will potentially change their lives and allow them to move to The Big Apple. However, misstep after misstep causes them to endure a tumultuous night that only puts them further into the abyss of cruel city life. Neil Simon, known for applying semi-autobiographical components into his scripts, used this film as an opportunity to incorporate real-life events to portray a genuine contrast between fast, urban city life and meek, suburban living. Those events were the 1966 transit strike, which left New York City without any transportation, and the 1968 sanitation strike, which allowed for the streets of New York to accumulate mountains of untouched garbage. In contrast to the quaint, large-scale neighborhood the moviegoer briefly sees at the beginning of the film, this essentially makes New York City a character in itself within this film.
The comedy of the film is largely due to the slapstick humor, but primarily because of the representation of city life. New York City is portrayed as fast-paced, unrelenting, and unforgiving. The city is bleak and has the capacity to swallow an innocent couple whole in a matter of hours, as the film shows with George and Gwen Kellerman. The city had to be seen as a blatant contrast to the simplistic style of the Kellermans, who solely want the opportunity to enjoy a more lavish and exciting life. They get precisely that within the course of the film, but it’s not the sort of excitement they were expecting. Instead, they are introduced to things that would be perceived as ordinary in suburban life that is now greatly dangerous in city life. “What’s wrong with a park?” George asks his wife when they are stranded in the middle of Central Park in the middle of the night. The humor of the situation is that we, as moviegoers, are aware that Central Park in the middle of the night is insanely dangerous. We can already foreshadow something bad will happen, and of course, it does. That is where the humor of The Out-of-Towners excels at.
Yet it’s the film’s theme of desensitization that has the largest impact within the film. With garbage piling on the street, no access to transportation, the streets littered with crime (“Oh my God…I think we’re being kidnapped!”), the film portrays New York City populated with individuals who have become acceptant of their depreciated circumstances. Nobody complains. Nobody challenges ‘we should have better.’ Instead, the gross underbelly of New York has been accepted as a norm. People look the other way, carry on, and hope they aren’t next in a succession of someone’s spree of crimes. That is where the humor of The Out-of-Towners especially is successful at because both George and Gwen Kellerman are reactionary, the only reactionary people in a city populated by 8 million people. They are caught in the middle of a city that has normalized deviant behavior. The incredulous responses from George and Gwen as a result of these systematic injustices are hilarious because the average citizen can relate to them. The Kellermans’ shock and mortification is laugh-out-loud funny because we recognize how ridiculous city life has become and how much humanity one must sacrifice in order to survive within such an environment.
However, George and Gwen aren’t the picture-perfect couple either. In a way that only Neil Simon could have achieved it, the fast-paced city attitude is instilled within the George character, but tweaked just enough that he still possesses attributes of suburbia. George is impatient, hysterical, neurotic, and borderline selfish. There’s a sort of ego-centric attitude to the character that would typically be put in association with the average New Yorker (or any major city dweller). However, due to Jack Lemmon’s incredible acting and impeccable comedic timing, George’s flaws are merely represented as someone who is witnessing his aspirations and hopes crumble little-by-little and he is desperate to hold onto some form of dignity and humanity. He is fast-paced, yes, but he isn’t someone willing to sacrifice his state-of-being to conform to a city that is vile in nature. In that regard, The Out-of-Towners is a cage fight between city life versus suburbia life, with city life throwing many punches throughout the battle.
A film like this heavily depends on comedic acting, otherwise even the most successful of scripts will fall flat. That is not the scenario with Jack Lemmon and Sandy Denis, both of whom were stellar examples of superb comedy acting. Part of what made them an outstanding duo was their differing styles of comedy. Lemmon’s neurotic, reactionary style of acting juxtaposed with Denis’ dead-pan style provided a fantastic back-and-forth of comedic wit and talent. Added to this was both Lemmon and Denis having recurrent jokes that eventually formulated into a continuous gag (George with his list of people he’s going to sue and Gwen with her continually saying “Oh my God” when something goes wrong). These recurrent jokes are brilliant in themselves and further function as evidence of Lemmon and Denis’ acting talent. Their brilliance is how these jokes change in context throughout the film, being introduced as a normative reaction and subsequently getting funnier and funnier, becoming a character motif as they repeat throughout the film. This is comedic timing at its finest.
Yet the definitive achievement of Jack Lemmon and Sandy Denis is their ability to have the moviegoer care about them. The Out-of-Towners begins with no exposition or backstory that allows the viewer to understand George and Gwen’s plight and even why this job interview in New York might be an exciting prospect for them. Instead, the film immediately begins and it is their continual overcoming of obstacles that leads the plot of this film forward. What makes the characters easy to resonate with is their commitment to each other. The vast majority of the film features Lemmon and Denis together, to which their journey is one that they help each other through. At various points of the film, one or the other of them nearly gives up and accepts defeat, but are persuaded to persevere onwards. They are dependent of each other, which provided the characters with much humanity, but also gave moviegoers something to resonate with. Whether one wants to admit it or not, having dependency on another person, even if it’s minimal, is something all persons endure every once and a while. Lemmon and Denis’ performances remind audiences that such dependency is sometimes necessary when trying to endure a harsh circumstance.
The Out-of-Towners is a timeless film. Its commentary and themes are still relevant in today’s contemporary society. Jack Lemmon and Sandy Denis’ comedic style of acting is completely flawless. Neil Simon’s script is hilarious and easy to resonate with. When taking all of these components together, it is simple to argue that The Out-of-Towners is a film classic that all moviegoers should see at least once.