The Movie and Performance:
By 1993, It had been twelve years since Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau starred in a movie together as a comedy duo. Their previous work together was in 1981, Buddy Buddy, which was a critical and commercial disaster. The film, the last Billy Wilder would direct in his career, was regarded as a poorly made film that strived too hard to be funny. By Jack Lemmon’s own admission, he cited part of the film’s failure being Wilder’s inability to take suggestions from actors and implementing his own vision of what he deemed to be funny. In the past few years of his career, Wilder saw many of his films receive mixed reviews, not like the rave reviews of his past with films such as Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, and Sunset Blvd. By 1981, Billy Wilder was regarded as a washed-up director who couldn’t adapt to cinema’s evolution. Walter Matthau further substantiated this claim by once saying about Buddy Buddy, “I didn’t want to say no to being in a Billy Wilder picture. But this wasn’t a Billy Wilder picture.” As a result of Buddy Buddy’s poor reception, Billy Wilder went into retirement and the Lemmon-Matthau duo that began in 1966 seemingly ended.
This changed in 1993 when the duo reunited to star in Grumpy Old Men together. The film was originally thought of as vehicle for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, but both declined due to their health. The film came to both Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau at an opportune time, considering their careers had dramatically slowed down during the 1980s. Grumpy Old Men gave both actors a chance to reintroduce themselves to a younger generation. Yet the film was intended to be a mere holiday film with a release date of Christmas. However, the film slowly became one of the most successful, most profitable movies of 1993. Moviegoers loved what Grumpy Old Men had to offer, which not only gave the movie enough clout to have a sequel in 1995, but it also revitalized the careers of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, who gained tremendous popularity for the remainder of their careers.
The film is simple enough in its plot: John Gustafson (Jack Lemmon) and Max Goldman (Walter Matthau) are neighbors and rivals. Their rivalry stems from an old rift when John “stole” Max’s high-school sweetheart and married her. Now in their elder years, both are alone and lonely, and somewhat get momentary pleasure in their rivalry with each other. John and Max go back-and-forth with insults and pulling jokes on each other, usually with the intention of driving the other crazy. Yet both share the mutual interest in ice fishing, which is where their rivalry is mostly sidelined in favor of the hobby. Additionally, both men are connected with their children and seek solace with them. This all is upended when Ariel Truax (Ann-Margret),a bohemian Californian, moves next door and both men fight for her affections.
What particularly makes this movie work is that it offered a new dynamic for Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Prior to this movie, their work together was typically about them clashing, but ultimately seeing each other as equals. This was the scenario of The Fortune Cookie, The Odd Couple, and The Front Page. In order for Grumpy Old Men to function as its own entity and not be a desperate relic of the past trying to find contemporary relevance, there had to be a fresh component to the film. The new aspect of the Lemmon-Matthau comedy duo was seeing them spar with each other in this film. Grumpy Old Men is the first time the duo actively fought each other, not seeing each other as equals, and treating each other as bitter rivals. This offered a new dynamic to their comedy and it especially works with their age, satirizing the stereotype of the older generation being cranky, bitter, and easily annoyed. The movie is about watching these comedy icons fight each other and it surprisingly works.
What further added to Grumpy Old Men’s success was the film’s wonderful integration of old versus new generation actors. Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau are at the epicenter of the film with Daryl Hannah and Kevin Pollack represented the newer, younger pop-culture icons of the 1990s. Additionally, the film stars other acting legends from the Golden Age of Hollywood, such as Golden Age great Ossie Davis, 1960s sex icon Ann-Margret, and Rocky alum Burgess Meredith in a hilarious, scene-stealing performance as Jack Lemmon’s oversexed father. Together, this cast represents the generations of acting and each of them provided something special to this film without ever clamoring for extra attention. If anything, the film may have benefited more if this great cast had been integrated a little further to emphasize the history of Hollywood acting.
What the film primarily focuses on is the Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau sparing matches, which works. However, the exposition into their rivalry isn’t revealed until well into the film. The revelation of their rivalry could have benefited the film if it had been introduced at the onset of the film’s narrative. Until the reason of the feud is revealed, the audience is left wondering ‘so what,’ causing the jokes and insults to sometimes come off as random. Once the moviegoer is left with the understanding of why these character hate each other and bicker, it gave the film more depth and the laughs made more sense as a result
Yet what makes Grumpy Old Men a special film experience is that it isn’t merely about the bickering, pranks, and grumblings of the characters, but rather there is a humanity to the film that is touching. The film reminds viewers of the necessity to continue living life and not settle into routine or the everyday. The movie is about living life to the fullest and finding inspiration wherever it’s possible. For the characters within Grumpy Old Men in the film’s opening, their only pastime is living in the past, which causes them to be detached from living in the now. This is why Ann-Margret’s Ariel is such a positive presence in this film, because she awakens something in these characters. That is likely why this movie appealed to moviegoers, because it offered the positive message that one can continue to enjoy the world around them if they take a chance and try living. Anyone can remain comfortable within their environment by not taking any chances. It’s when one willfully risks something that they begin to live, as this film portrays through its two lead characters.
Grumpy Old Men wasn’t a movie aiming for awards or even nostalgia. It simply is a movie to watch and be entertained by. With that intentionality, the movie succeeds without any real issues.