“It’s like one of those fatal attraction things, like they show on the Donahue Show, you know?”
It might not have exactly been “fatal”, but the attraction that Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau had for each other, and we still have for them, is on perfect display in Grumpy Old Men. Then again… it might just as well have been fatal, if not fate. The two men died just months from each other. Matthau left us in July of 2000, and just under a year later in June of 2001 we lost Jack Lemmon. Chris Lemmon, Jack’s son, doesn’t think it’s entirely a coincidence. He told me in a recent interview that the men loved each other. He joked that “if Walter had played golf, he’d have married him.” Whether it was the chemistry these guys had off screen or just their natural abilities, might be hard to pin down. Whatever the reason, there have been few Hollywood duos that put out as impressive a body of work. With Lemmon, it was the fact that he was always rather a dramatic actor who found himself in hilarious roles. With Matthau, he was always the lovable buffoon whose characters almost always got in their own way. They appeared in about a dozen films together, from the enigmatic Oliver Stone JFK to The Odd Couple, perhaps their most renowned comedy. Like all of their films the main attraction, fatal or otherwise, is watching these two buddies work together. Grumpy Old Men might not be anything like their best work, but I’d take these guys on an average day over most duos on their very best.
Max (Matthau) and John (Lemmon) have been neighbors for over 60 years. In all of that time they have engaged in a fierce rivalry that might give the Hatfields and McCoys a run for their money. The feud appears to have started over the woman John eventually married, but it’s escalated into a non-stop series of pranks and sabotage that has dominated both of their lives. In their old age they both now live alone. Max has gotten into some trouble with the IRS, and they’re about to take away his home. He has a daughter, Melanie (Hannah), who is in an abusive marriage. Max has become the more bitter of the two and pretty much wishes to keep to himself. His son, Jacob (Pollak) is running for the town mayor. The two kids were once an item, and John wouldn’t mind seeing those flames rekindled to get his daughter away from her husband. Life goes on as normal in the hood. The two continue to play their mostly harmless tricks on one another. When they’re not at each other, they enjoy ice fishing in the winter months. Both own fishing cabins on the local Minnesota lake. There we also find John’s elder father and local dirty old man, played by the obviously aging Burgess Meredith, in his final role. All is normal until an attractive widow (Margret) moves into the neighborhood. Now both men have designs on the same woman like they did 60 years before. Both will stop at nothing to “win” this time, or will they?
There’s a lot to love about this movie. The performances of not just Matthau and Lemmon are pretty much first rate. Ann Margret continues to defy time, looking nothing like her 50 plus years on the film. It’s notable as the final performance of everyone’s favorite Penguin, Burgess Meredith. He is pretty weak and infirm in this movie but still manages to make his presence felt in the few scenes he’s in. Ossie Davis has a wonderful turn as Chuck, the owner of the local bait shop. He’s terribly underused here. I would have liked to see him more with Lemmon and Matthau. He worked his way into that team quite well. A film with that trio would have been something. The Minnesota environments work well, giving the movie a nice claustrophobic feel, even in the open air. It’s a nice wintry film befitting its 1993 Christmas Day release. If you’ve never had the chance to catch this one, this Blu-ray release is a fine opportunity to correct the injustice.
I realize that this really is a catalog title, but it seems such a shame to get this one on such a barebones Blu-ray release. There has to be a ton of material out there that would be of great interest to fans of Matthau and Lemmon. Instead we get a release that really shows very little in the way of any love for them. Both the audio and picture are minimal upgrades from the DVD version, and there are no extras to speak of.
Grumpy Old Men is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with a VC-1 codec. Certainly the high definition transfer offers something more in the area of detail, but sadly it’s not a dramatic improvement. Contrast is rather good, which allows for very nice bright whites in the snowy environments. Black levels are a bit softer and don’t offer us a lot of shadow detail. Fortunately, the film doesn’t have a lot of those darker lit moments. The print exhibits signs of wear and is far from a perfect presentation. It’s a step up from the DVD, but it’s not going to be a reference Blu-ray in your collection.
The Dolby TrueHD 2.0 Audio track doesn’t need to do all that much, and that’s rather fortunate. It might be uncompressed, but it clocks in at around 654 kbps most of the time. Dialog comes through, and as I’ve said that really is the main point of the audio here.
Why don’t they make comedy films like this any more? The film has its share of physical jokes, and yes, there’s even a bit of the sexual innuendo stuff, mostly coming from Meredith’s grandpa character. But, these are not the foundation that the movie is built upon. The foundation is first and foremost characters. I’m not just talking the obvious Lemmon/Matthau stuff here. The supporting cast is also quite good. The film begins with solid characters that we care about in an amazingly short period of time. Most of these films deliver characters that we never get to care all that much about. If we don’t care about them, then why would we give a dang what happens to them? At least Blu-ray offers us the chance to revisit a time when they did get it right. So, when will we get anything like it again? “Well, it’s a perfectly legitimate question.”