Original US release date: December 25, 1993
Production budget: $35,100,000
Worldwide gross: $70,172,621
For those who might not be aware, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau were a common theatrical comedy duo, much like the pairings of Don Knotts and Tim Conway, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, or Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. Their first movie together was 1966’s The Fortune Cookie and that was shortly followed up by perhaps their most famous team-up in The Odd Couple in 1968. 1993’s Grumpy Old Men (which was actually originally offered to Martin and Lewis) was their sixth of an eventual ten films together, further cementing their long-standing association and iconic status as comedy legends.
I remember this film being released and I remember the buzz around it. Lemmon and Matthau were always beloved, respected, and incredibly popular, so this film was on my radar even before I was the movie fiend that I am, now. In the movie (directed by Donald Petrie of Mystic Pizza and Miss Congeniality fame), Lemmon and Matthau play aging rivals John and Max, respectively. After having a falling out, many years ago, the two men continue to be at each other’s throats, constantly playing pranks, hurling insults, and egging each other on. The situation only escalates when single and seductive Ariel (Ann-Margret) moves in across the street, fanning the flames of their feud in a way that only romantic competition can do.
I know I’ve said this a number of times, recently, but I really miss this era of moviegoing. In 1993, a movie such as Grumpy Old Men was considered four-quadrant programming, appealing to anyone and everyone, regardless of age, ethnicity, or gender. It was positioned as a crowd-pleasing comedy and it didn’t matter that it didn’t feature special effects or young, attractive stars. It had credibility and, back then, credibility was about all that was necessary for most people. Having said that, when I did my research for this column, I was surprised to see that the film didn’t do quite as well as I had remembered it doing, only grossing twice its budget – likely not enough to make a profit. I’m a little bewildered by that, as I recall people really liking the movie and giving it good (and frequent) word-of-mouth. But my point is that, even if this particular film didn’t kill it at the box office, it was certainly more likely to do so then than it would be now, and that’s frustrating for me.
I suppose I can’t complain too much about its disappointing box office performance, though, as I had never actually seen the film until now. The movie opened on Christmas Day and is set at Christmastime in Minnesota, establishing a warm, welcoming tone right away, even in the face of the guys’ juvenile behavior. I like snow, so I always enjoy seeing it in a film – to the point that it’s possible the snow artificially increased my enjoyment of the movie, much in the same way that dinosaurs and amusement parks can sometimes do. So, trying to focus on other elements, I found the movie enjoyable and charming, though not strong enough to be truly considered an all-time classic.
The humor is largely of the zany type, with lots of physical comedy (some slapstick, some not quite) and plenty of pretty good zingers (but no truly “sick burns” as the kids or the old folk or people other than me say) thrown back and forth between the guys. It’s amusing and sometimes funny, but I never found it flat-out hilarious. But, as I’ve said so many times with regards to comedies (say it with me), mileage will vary. So, it’s possible that others would find it gut-busting whereas I only found it smile-inducing.
I think my biggest struggle came along with my efforts to simply buy into the whole premise. The cast does a great job of making it all as believable as possible, but I just can’t envision real-life adults of any age handling their inability to get along the way that these two men do. At one point, it’s arguable that one of them literally tries to murder the other, but nobody bats an eye, with everyone – including the recipient of the “prank” – just brushing it off as the guys being the guys, like the physical version of Donald Trump’s “locker room talk”. I understand that this is a comedy and many comedies require some suspension of disbelief to make them work. And, for much of the movie, I was okay with it. Eventually, however, it just all became a bit much to swallow, even as I continued to enjoy the other components of the film.
While my complaints have validity, it’s also true that Grumpy Old Men is the kind of film where issues like that don’t matter quite as much. If this had been some sort of year-end drama shooting for Oscar buzz, the issues would present a much bigger problem. But, it’s not; it’s a comedy starring a cast of film legends (including a young Daryl Hannah) aiming to delight and entertain. It ultimately accomplishes that, even if it’s more due to tone and whimsy than actual comedy. The film is a reminder of a different time when movie stars were the draw more so than the movies, themselves, and audiences were more open-minded towards the types of films they would venture out to see in theaters. Grumpy Old Men might not have the legacy it probably could have had, but it’s still a shining example of good, old-fashioned movie making.
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