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Lemmon and Matthau shine in Grumpy Old Men

Grumpy Old Men
Starring Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, and Ann-Margret.
Directed by Donald Petrie.
Written by Mark Steven Johnson.
Loews Copley.

By Ann Ames
Arts Editor

Only one thing can make friends hate each other as much as neighbors John Gustafson (Jack Lemmon) and Max Goldman (Walter Matthau) try to do in Grumpy Old Men. The climate alone in the Minnesota setting is enough to make anyone permanently peevish, but John and Max seem impervious to the snow, frozen only by each other's presence. When the vivacious, sensual widow Ariel Truax (Ann-Margret) moves into the house across the street from them, their 56-year rivalry is reinforced as they vie for the primary place in her affections.

Filmed on location in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, the plentiful snow provides ample opportunity for these perfect enemies to make each other's life hell. They treat the audience to a string of tricks that they appear to have cataloged over the years: Water from a garden hose loosens the snow over a doorway; a catch from John's day of ice-fishing rots unnoticed in the back seat of Max's messy car.

Unfortunately, the entire substance of the film lies in these antics. Half the movie passes before the secret source of John's and Max's animosity is revealed. The characters are funny but shallow, and would have failed miserably with anyone but Lemmon and Matthau filling the roles. The tidbits presented of Ariel's background never adequately explain her flamboyant behavior. She is a gratuitous romantic plot twist and unwitting neighborhood antagonist; a waste, since her personality inspires boundless curiosity.

Burgess Meredith plays the only comic character unaffected by a lack of depth. As Grandpa, John's oversexed father, he sparks every one of his scenes with spunky, biting wit. He is an old man intent upon enjoying every minute of life left to him, and having been thus stripped of neuroses he needs no further development. Even his constantly lewd advice to his son does not get tiresome, and his extensive vocabulary of vulgar metaphors sparkles with hysterical nastiness.

Mark Steven Johnson wrote this screenplay with Lemmon and Matthau in mind, and it is obviously nothing more than a vehicle for their talents. When not forced to be cynically witty, Matthau and Lemmon do their best to convince the audience that their characters are real. But with moments of sincerity periodically disrupted by clever but two-dimensional banter, it is hard for the audience to form a clear impression of their identities. Fortunately, such brilliant actors can vacillate between grumpy, pointless jokery and the more normal concerns of aging men without losing focus; by the end of the film, they succeed in making men of Max and John. In one short scene, Max has to admit that he honestly cares about John, and that revelation excuses all of the movie's other shortcomings.

This is no masterwork of screen literature, but it does not pretend to be. It is simply entertainment, and with two classic comedic antagonizers leading the cast, every acerbic barb scores a direct hit on the funny bone.