The frozen Minnesota landscape is a great setting for the shenanigans, and the premise is funny: two old men obsessed with ice fishing and Ann-Margaret.
"Grumpy Old Men" is a two-man war story set in frozen Minnesota. Using their neighboring houses as command posts, John (Jack Lemmon) and Max (Walter Matthau) have been at each other for over fifty years, and they measure the success of their days by the comic humiliation they inflict on each other. Entrepreneurial cruelty is the medium, and misery is the winner's trophy.
John plays chess with himself while musing about the relative merits of stroke, accident and heart attack as the death of choice. He lightens that macabre meditation by listening to opera while fishing through an ice hole in his shanty on a nearby lake. Slumped in a threadbare easy chair in perfect reverie, he will be distubed only by a fish - or by Max.
Ever ready to oblige, Max occupies himself with a full time, usually successful search for ways to shock his neighbor. Matthau and Lemmon are very good at this sort of thing by now. Their furrowed faces show bountiful glee in success, anguish at being had, and abject loneliness whenever the battle is at less than full throttle. And so it goes until a new twist turns it all into a fairy tale.
With all the likelihood of Madonna moving to Peoria, Ariel (Ann-Margaret) moves into the house next door. Recently widowed, she arrives with a moving van crammed with New Age sculptures and pronouncements. As merry a widow as ever we've seen, she drops from nowhere into the arms of John and Max, a piece of spun sugar, an apparition rolling naked in the snow after her sauna, an unearthly being who has decided to marry whichever man in Wabasha will make her happy.
The frozen Minnesota landscape is a great setting for the shenanigans, and the premise is funny: two old men obsessed with ice fishing and Ann-Margaret. The soundtrack plays Bing Crosby's "Sleighbells Ring" while incessant snow blankets the most dysfunctional suburban block in all of Minneapolis.
Walter Matthau is as visually expressive as ever, his whole cap rising and falling on the wave of his eyebrows, and Jack Lemmon still gives the audience a direct line to his heart. Together they convey the loneliness and mortality that lie just beyond the jokes. Stick around, absolutely, for the final credits which roll to an inspired overview of the film's outtakes between Matthau and Lemmon. It's that chemistry that makes this imperfect comedy work.
If the sap runs too freely, and it certainly does, there is such a thing as being forgivably saccharine when the jokes are great big belly laughs. Stuck as we all are with the accepted inanities of social interaction, it tickles something deep inside to watch Max, without changing expression, greet John with "Hi, dick head."
Film Critic: JOAN ELLIS
Word Count: 483
Studio: Warner Bros.
Copyright (c) Illusion
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