Synopsis: Neil Simon has a special genius for finding the great hilarity in ordinary people doing everyday things. Like two divorced men who decide to share a New York apartment. That’s the premise of The Odd Couple, though there’s nothing odd in the casting of two Oscar-winning talents like Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. The two veteran funnymen work together with the precision timing of a vaudeville team, but always with bright spontaneity. Lemmon plays fussy Felix, fastidious to a fault. He proves that cleanliness is next to insanity. Mattau is Oscar, who wreaks havoc on a tidy room with the speed and thoroughness of a tornado. An enduring and endearing picture, with the intelligence one usually misses in comedies.
The Odd Couple 8.0
eyelights: the dynamic between Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.
eyesores: Felix’s party-pooper ways.
“It’s your fault, you stopped him from killing himself”
‘The Odd Couple’ is the story of Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison, two hopelessly mismatched middle-aged men who end up living together when Felix becomes suicidal over his divorce and easy-going Oscar offers to lodge him. Little could Oscar know that Felix would become his worst nightmare.
Felix is a well-meaning neurotic, who is a neat freak (and hypochondriac), whereas Oscar is a self-centered, bon-vivant who is remarkably untidy. The moment that they start to share space, they clash and, within three weeks, Oscar is on edge. Although he’s saved Felix from suicide, he just might murder him!
‘The Odd Couple’ permeated pop culture for a couple of decades: it was first a smash hit on Broadway in 1965, then it was a monstrous hit on the big screen in 1968 (making, reportedly 30 times its budget!), followed by an award-winning run on television for five seasons.
Even now, one will bump into ‘The Odd Couple’ here or there in one form or another: the play has been adapted many times over since 1965 (and is still performed!) and the film even produced a sequel in 1998. It’s probably just a matter of time before it’s remade with Paul Rudd and Jason Siegel.
What makes the film version so delightful is a combination of factors: the brilliant principal cast, the witty dialogues, and the playful music.
Walter Matthau had played Oscar in the original stage presentation and returned to the part of the freewheeling sports journalist he was so brilliant at (for the movie, he wanted the challenge of playing Felix, but he was deemed too perfect as Oscar). In his hands, Oscar is confident and carefree, the perfect alpha male. His only issue: he has the worst pecs in cinematic history! I didn’t even know a man’s chest could droop so low. It’s a wonder he never tripped on them.
Jack Lemmon was hired to play Felix, in part because the director at one point was to be Billy Wilder, with whom he collaborated frequently. Wilder dropped out, but Lemmon signed on to a lucrative deal that gave a share of the gross. It would become one of his signature roles: whiny, depressed, grating and yet sympathetic enough that you care about him. Few could have pulled it off (Art Carney had played the part on stage, but was deemed a weak box office draw).
Even though the two had already been paired up in a picture (Billy Wilder’s ‘The Fortune Cookie‘, coincidentally enough), and would do seven more in subsequent years, and would work on other film projects together, this is the one that everyone remembers best (‘Grumpy Old Men‘ is a close second). They simply had the right chemistry and combination of counterpoints to create comedy gold – when mined in the correct fashion, that is (as evidenced by the lackluster ‘Buddy Buddy‘).
This would be all for naught if the material wasn’t as sharp as it is, of course. Neil Simon is one of America’s most beloved playwrights for a reason: he knows how to create imperfect but relatable characters and serve them with ironic dialogues. He also knows when to ramp up the absurdity of any given situation to just the right degree that it is highlighted, but never so that it becomes wholly unbelievable. ‘The Odd Couple’ is an example of his mastery.
The opening sequence alone is indicative of how fine his writing was here: Felix checks into a hotel for the sole purpose of jumping out of the window. After asking for a higher floor than the one proposed by the front desk clerk, and exchanging a “Goodbye” for a “Goodnight”, he proceeds to make his attempt. Unfortunately, he finds the window jammed and throws his back trying to pry it open. Miserably, he decides to scrap his plan and goes to Oscar’s poker night.
Suicide is no laughing matter. Although anyone should have the right to choose when and how they will die, it’s devastating for those left behind. But Simon managed to make a grim situation mordant with irony and subtleties – a rare feat. The only thing that spoiled it for me was Lemmon’s performance, which was slightly exaggerated (particularly when he throws his back). Had he toned it down slightly, it would have been a classic sequence on par with some of comedy’s best.
By the time that Simon has made Oscar and Felix flatmates, we are treated to arguments of the kind one finds in traditional domestic quarrels (the time Oscar arrives home at, his cleanliness, …etc.). In transposing two single men in the part of a married couple, he helped break down stereotypes by indicating that these roles aren’t exclusively gender-related: a man could be a nag without being effeminate, inferring thus that the slob could be a woman.
He also blurs the lines further during some of the poker games, showing us more traditional males in contrast with more sensitive ones. After Felix moves in, everyone is astonished with how clean the place is. But whereas the more traditional men complain about its antiseptic quality, the others are deferential. They even relish the sandwiches that Felix makes, hilariously discussing their every virtue – much to the disgust of the more devoted poker players.
There’s this terrific scene in which Oscar convinces Felix to have their neighbours, two saucy sisters, over for dinner one night. Oscar is obviously out to play the field and doesn’t care which one he “gets”, while Felix is all anxious, focused entirely on making dinner and ensuring that all goes according to (his) plan. I couldn’t help but see myself in that role, so tied up in the details that one completely forgets about having fun – which was the point of this soirée.
(In fact, in some ways, I saw Felix as a caricature of myself. I could see how grating I would be on a roommate such as Oscar, how I would likely be nit-picky about every single detail – until I got lazy and threw in the towel, that is. I’m also a softie, like Felix, but I’m nowhere nearly as fragile as he is – I’m far more resilient, physically. But, watching the picture, I could relate to Felix quite well. And empathize with poor Oscar, whose limited tolerance matches my own.)
Their dates are lovely, giggly and playful. Although Cecily is cute, Gwendolyn, is quite enticing – her red hair catches the eye and there’s a wonderful tone in her voice. The pair were so giddy that it was fun to watch them. As one might expect, Felix is a total downer, unable to lighten up: he talks about the weather, his divorce and his kids. He gets emotional, carrying along the sisters with him and ruining the evening. Oscar would never forgive him for this.
‘The Odd Couple’ retains its buoyancy even in conflict partly because of it wonderful score. Anchored by an amusing theme, which recurs in various forms throughout the picture, the music is neither entirely comic nor dramatic. If anything, it’s slightly escapist, allowing it to bridge both aspects of the picture. Like the Pink Panther theme, Neal Hefti’s Odd Couple theme has become so identified with these characters that it was reused for the TV series and the sequel.
Even 45 years later, ‘The Odd Couple’ refuses to show its age. It’s a universal story, after all: bad roommates, mismatched partners, we have all experienced these in one fashion or another. These particular archetypes are easy to relate to in the first place, but it’s the way that Neil Simon spotlights the absurdity of human behaviour that makes it so brilliant. And, featuring one of comedy’s greatest comic partnerships, this is a comedy classic that will likely still bring laughs many years from now.
No doubt, Neil Simon’s masterpiece is here to stay.
Dates of viewing: June 23 + 24, 2014