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‘Grumpy Old Men’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 24, 1993


Donald Petrie
Jack Lemmon;
Walter Matthau;
Daryl Hannah;
Burgess Meredith;
Kevin Pollak;
Ossie Davis;
Buck Henry
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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Uh-oh: Tinkling piano alert in "Grumpy Old Men." It comes moments after we've met Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, neighbors, curmudgeons and sworn enemies in Wabasha, Minn. The solitary plink-plink-plink warns us that this amusing comedy of insults, oneupmanship and dastardly practical jokes is going to be bittersweet. Any amusing frigidity will soon be thawed by a heartwarming slushfront.

But if we avoided all movies that innoculate us against real life, we wouldn't get out much, would we? If you poke through "Grumpy's" cheap sentimentality, you'll find a worthy picture somewhere.

A cold war has lasted between both men for more than half a century, since Lemmon married the love of Matthau's life. In the intervening years, Lemmon's wife has died, Matthau has also become a widower, and their respective children (Daryl Hannah and Kevin Pollak) have grown up. But time has done nothing to break up the enmity.

Matthau, whose living room window is perfectly lined up for such evil-doing, likes to use his remote to switch off Lemmon's television at particularly strategic moments -- when Lemmon's waiting for lottery results, for instance. Another Matthau specialty is to hide a fish inside Lemmon's car, so it'll stink to high heaven by the time Lemmon steps in.

"Moron," spits Lemmon at his lifelong rival, in the most printable of his regular insults. Matthau's reply to this, however, cannot be repeated.

When redhead-on-a-snowmobile Ann-Margret plows into town and moves in next door, the men are smitten. This heart-thumping vamp likes to roll sensually in the snow after hot-tub sessions. She's very available and, in case anyone should doubt her true purpose, she loves to make snow angels. It's time for Lemmon and Matthau to gussy up, sharpen their woman-chatting skills and go to romantic battle a second time.

To enjoy this Warner Bros. movie you have to forgive the most shameless pandering. A prime example: Lemmon, after a particularly life-affirming experience with Ann-Margret, slides into view in his underwear, parodying Tom Cruise in "Risky Business." The dirty language (much of it from Lemmon's cantankerous father, Burgess Meredith) also seems calculated to draw in younger audiences.

But it's performed in a dusty, classic manner; "Grumpy" should have been called "Odd Couple Revisited." It hails from the school of bash 'em rivalry -- a tradition at least as old as Punch and Judy, Laurel and Hardy, and the Keystone Kops -- and it's a pleasure to watch these salty-tongued fellas go at each other. Matthau is the most enjoyable, as his hang-dog delivery underlines his every retort with espresso-bitter cynicism. I've never been a great fan of Lemmon's chirrupy, stagebound style, but nowadays he has an appealing, hoary seniority. It's also an incongruous guilty pleasure to watch him talking dirty.

In today's mouse-toting, instant-gratification world, this kind of old-fashioned, character-driven slapstick is wonderfully incompatible. It's a grumpy last hurrah.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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