It's the kind of movie people are always complaining Hollywood doesn't make any more. Wholesome. No blood, no guts, no nudity. Simply a light, romantic comedy with a happy ending.
But "House Calls" goes beyond the Doris Day genre. Far from insipid, it's one of the funniest, and most affecting, movies to come around in a long time. The acting is polished, the writing superb. The jokes make you laugh. That's no small feat.
A quick summary of the plot - or even a lengthy one, for that matter - doesn't convey the movie's charm. Walter Matthau plays a middle-aged surgeon whose wife has recently died. He embarks on a series of one-night stands, hoping to make up for 31 years of lost time. But he's attracted to a woman (Glenda Jackson) who's the opposite of the pliant bunny type he had in mind - opinionated, intelligent, a little older than his deal.
As lovers, they're refreshing contrast to the usual Robert Redford-style Hollywood concoctions: They're real people, with wrinkles and less-than-perfect bodies. Matthau, in fact is a physical wreck. But somehow he's totally believable as a romantic lead, and it's not asking too much to believe that beautiful, classy Jackson is attracted to him.
The outcome of this attraction is predictable: Of course a woman like Jackson is the only type Matthau could ever really be happy with. Of course such disparate types will have their conflicts. And of course the conflicts will be funny.
But that's not important. The plot is in-significant, a showcase for Matthau's and Jackson's respective acting specialties. No one but Matthau could possibly do justice to the wrinkled, rumpled doctor-about-town, and who but Jackson to play the down-to-earth Englishwoman with the wicked sense of humor?
Matthau and Jackson work in Kensington General Hospital, whose inept staff is the source of much of the movie's funniest moments. Strapped-down patients left on elevators, going unfound (and unmissed) for a day or two. People's jaws held together with football helmet-like contraptions not in use for 20 years. People dying on the operating table through hospital incompetence. A bumbling, senile boob as the chief of staff.
Many of the jokes have the black-humor edge of "M*A*S*H": You laugh away, but realize it's not much of an exaggeration - probably only doctors wuold fully appreciate the hospital humor, since only they know the true inside horror stories the laughs are based on.
The supporting actors are as carefully chosen as the leads. Richard Benjamin is effective but underemployed as Matthau's cynical doctor pal, who stands around handing out straight lines and batting eye-lashes a lot. And Art Carney's understated style is prefectly suited to the role of the crazy/crafty doctor who runs the hospital. He turns a Dodger Stadium funeral service for a baseball club-owner into an uproarious scene with a brilliantly delivered eulogy as the ashes are buried under home plate.
The only drawback is that director Howard Zieff keeps the jokes coming at such a furious pace - one-liners on top of sight gags on top of slapstick - that much of the soundtrack was repeatedly wiped out by the audience's laughter. If you happen to sit next to a real har-de-har-har type, as I did, you may find yourself wishing that the movie weren't quite so funny, or that Zieff had exercised a little surer timing.
But too many laughs from your neighbors is a small price to pay for an otherwise enjoyable hour and a half.