Usually, when I call something a “must-see” movie, it’s a Golden Age Hollywood film or an artsy European picture that most people will have a hard time sitting through and begrudge me for suggesting. This time, I am quite sincerely recommending the Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon 1968 classic The Odd Couple. It’s in color, it’s contemporary, and it’s a fine example of mainstream cinema succeeding.
One of the big reasons as to why I’m so highly recommending The Odd Couple is that it represents a very important aspect of life: friendship. All too frequently, people get caught up thinking romantic love is absolutely everything, and when a relationship falls apart, they do too. Movies, music, and literature are partially to blame. How many books have you read with a schmaltzy ending that suggests the characters will be fine because love conquers all? And how many movies seem to end with all of the conflicts resolved just because the leading man and lady kiss in front of flowers? And how many thousands and thousands of songs have you heard that suggested, because of love, everything is alright?
The Odd Couple deals with what happens when love falls apart. It begins with a series of macabre jokes revolving around Felix Unger feeling miserable after he has split with his wife. He rents a hotel room for the night with the sole intention of leaping out to his death, but in the process of jiggering with the window, he hurts his back, and thus decides not to leap.* Meanwhile, at Oscar Madison’s (Walter Matthau) apartment, he and a group of guys are together playing their weekly poker game, only to receive a call and learn that their good friend Felix has broken up with his wife. They quickly realize that Felix will be devastated. When Felix arrives, the guys all try to play it like they hadn’t heard the news, and go out of their way to make their beleaguered friend comfortable, all the while fearing that he may be in a suicidal mood. As dark as it sounds, this whole scene is one of the nicest scenes in all of cinema–nice because it shows how deeply these buddies care for one of their own, and sad because Felix is so upset by his wife that he doesn’t notice it. Felix’s name is one of the film’s in-jokes–Felix is German for happy I believe.
It’s then decided that, to keep an eye on Felix, he should move in with Oscar, who has a large apartment all too himself after his own divorce some time before. The film then becomes more of a blithe comedy and less dark, with a series of comical episodes revolving around the differences of the protagonists: Oscar is slovenly, and Felix is a compulsive cleaner of everything. Somehow, this premise alone was enough to inspire a spin-off sit-com that lasted for 5 years.
The screenplay is by the well-known playwright Neil Simon (Barefoot in the Park, The Out of Towners, Biloxi Blues), based on his own play which had debuted on broadway a few years prior (the broadway play also featured Matthau as Oscar). Neil Simon is great at coming up with funny situations and can write snatches of dialogue that you’ll want to memorize. My favorite line in The Odd Couple–I can’t remember it exactly–is when Matthau says soemthing like “I’m tired of finding notes on my pillow like ‘We’re out of cornflakes. F.U.’ It took me two hours to realize F.U. was Felix Unger!” I should point out that since it is based on a play, the pacing is different than most screen comedies, which might take a little time to get used to.
Contrary to popular belief, The Odd Couple isn’t the first pairing of Matthau and Lemmon. They had already starred opposite each other in the Billy Wilder film The Fortune Cookie (which I unfortunately haven’t seen yet). All total, they would make 10 films together, including two of my favorite films, Grumpy Old Men and Grumpier Old Men (to read about the third movie that might have been, click here). In Charlotte Chandler’s biography of Billy Wilder, the director himself said that, in retrospect, The Fortune Cookie wasn’t very good but he was proud that he at least united Matthau and Lemmon for the first time. One of the mishaps of this movie is that it caused Matthau to be typecast as a slob for much of the rest of his career, whereas before The Odd Couple he’d played a variety of different roles, such as a secret agent in Charade.
Bottom Line: The Odd Couple isn’t just a funny movie but an important and relevant one as well.
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*There’s a very similar bit of dark humor in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, where Allen’s character prepares to shoot himself, but he’s so nervous that his palms sweat and he ends up fumbling with the gun and shooting the wall. At that point, he decides to go take in a movie.