Synopsis: Powered by Walter Matthau’s Oscar-winning performance as the quintessential All-American chiseler, The Fortune Cookie is a hysterically funny comedy that showcases filmmaker Billy Wilder at his uproarious best.
Harry Hinkle (Jack Lemmon) is one lucky guy! When he’s accidentally clobbered by a 220-pound halfback, all Harry suffers is a slight concussion. All, that is, until Whiplash Willie (Matthau) — a legal scoundrel of the first order — arrives on the scene! For if Harry follows shyster Willie’s advice and feigns a crippling injury, the two charlatans can split a cool million in phony insurance claims. But can Willie’s world-class finagling dispel those ominous words that lie within the fortune cookie on Harry’s hospital plate: You can’t fool all of the people all of the time?
The Fortune Cookie 8.25
To be clear, the fact that I fall asleep to it doesn’t mean that it’s boring. Hardly. It’s just that it’s not a loud film and it’s rich in dialogue, so it makes for a great background piece (kind of like ‘The Princess Bride’, ‘The Apartment’ or ‘Best in Show’, actually).
Years prior to seeing it, I had heard that this was a must-see. Adding to this is the fact that it’s the first match-up of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, whom I’d adored in ‘The Odd Couple’ and “Grumpy Old Men” for ages. Until recently, I had no idea that they had also been paired up many many times since. But, of all of those, ‘The Fortune Cookie’ is one of the essentials.
It’s a simple story: a news cameraman gets injured while filming a football game, and his scheming legal-beagle brother-in-law decides to sue for a million dollar in his name. The cameraman gets sucked into his brother-in-law’s ploy and his whole life gets tossed about as he’s forced to live a lie.
Billy Wilder (and long-time co-writer I.A.L. Diamond)’s script is sharp. It remains on this side of credulity, even though it plays on the boundaries of reality from time to time. The lines are witty and the repartee is smart; they show the writers in top form, comparable to ‘The Apartment’, with a touch of farce along the lines of ‘Some Like it Hot’ thrown in for good measure.
But the overwhelming strength of this film is the brother-in-law played by Walter Matthau. As written, he’s already a very funny character: his lines are incisive and he’s a hilariously opportunistic creep – he never misses a chance to take advantage of any situation. But, as delivered by Matthau, there’s an intelligence and sleeziness combination that another actor probably wouldn’t have been able to muster. I’m not surprised that he won an Academy Award for it.
No great performance can survive in a vacuum, though. ‘The Fortune Cookie’ features a number of other solid characters and actors:
Ron Rich created an endearing, yet pitiable “Boom Boom”. He’s the nicest guy in the bunch and it’s so heartbreaking to watch him get played for a fool, being too good-natured to see through the fog cast by the duplicitous Willie. With feelings of guilt nagging at his conscience, he undeservedly becomes a casualty of the lawyer’s greed.
There’s also the trio of insurance lawyers who are trying to call Willie’s bluff, finding ways to get the truth out in the open. It’s impossible to separate any of them from the pack seeing as they play off of each other and truly are three heads on the same beast. If not for their involvement, however, I’m sure that slippery Willie would have been left spinning futilely.
Meanwhile, there’s Jack Lemmon. In ‘The Fortune Cookie’, he plays… Jack Lemmon. While he’s not as neurotic as he’s been before on-screen, his character is extremely familiar to anyone who’s seen ‘Some Like it Hot’ or ‘Grumpy Old Men’. It’s all a matter of whether or not one likes his style. I quite like it, even though I think I may be overdosing after a year of Lemmon films.
Then there’s Judi West, who plays Lemmon’s estranged wife, a key component of the story. She does an alright job, but is otherwise unnotable. Frankly, I’m not surprised to find out that she had hardly done anything before or since; she’s good, but not great and could easily be swapped for another actress (in fact, I got the sense that the role could have been perfect for Shirley MacLaine. Maybe she was busy…? Or had she had enough of Wilder and Lemmon by then? ).
At the very least, this film is worth seeing for Walter Matthau’s sleeze-bucket lawyer. It’s a terribly funny role that he based many characters on afterwards (that, and his bachelor player, Oscar, in ‘The Odd Couple’). But this was the first, and he’s absolutely brilliant here.
Of course, one would be hard-pressed to dislike the rest of the material – it’s a classic for a reason: it’s well-conceived, well-performed, and it’s delivered extremely well. One could do worse than to take a crack at ‘The Fortune Cookie’.