There’s something wonderful about Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon abusing each other for our pleasure (“Good morning, dickhead.” “Hello, moron.”). The whole home was crammed into the TV room when I got back from the Co-op, 2-4-1 DVD in hand. Rumours had spread that they were in the bargain bin, and damn me if the classy Grumps weren’t buried under soft porn and exercise videos in these 1990s glories: the stone-cold Grumpy Old Men and the feminised and tangibly warmer Grumpier Old Men.
John Gustafson (Lemmon) and Max Goldman (Matthau) have rowed for a lifetime since competing over a woman who married the now-widowed Gustafson. Angry neighbours, they live beside each other, they fish beside each other (through ice, in huts), they hate at each other: mostly through a hailstorm of insults and pranks. Rotting fish gets tossed into cars, the thick snow of Wabasha, Minnesota gets primed to fall off roofs, gags and put-downs come fast and frequent. Their relationship is wonderfully loathing.
Lugubrious Matthau and jittery Lemmon growl and hiss like an old dog and cat. And then Ann-Margret moves in opposite. The story goes up a notch as her free-living and cheery sexiness triggers the worst in their characters. The competing begins in earnest. Half the TV room was cheering for Matthau’s growly old hound; the other half for Lemmon’s rather more stressed tabby. He was being chased for tax and needed a break. And got one.
To date these films, Darryl Hannah and Kevin Pollak play the old farts’ children and each other’s love interest. There’s long-term fancying and ‘90s haircuts going on as a subtext. Well, text. Through neighbouring windows. As the old men battle it out for Ann-Margret’s heart, the youngsters pussy-foot between the second and third acts. Much like the comfy neighbourhood, all snow and familiarity, their situation causes no surprises in the first film and is used, rather awkwardly, to justify some plot in the second.
For after all the winning and losing in Grumpy, Grumpier brings a new lady to town. Much like Ann-Margret first time around, she is glamour incarnate and needing of a quality love. And blind to all options save the rowing old men… Sophia Loren. Yup. Loren does comedy…
With Daryl Hannah, Ann-Margret and Sophia Loren stepping up in Grumpier, there are fewer laughs but a more absorbing, kinder story. Matthau finds the love this time, singing around the lake and learning Italian, falling out with Lemmon for reasons that last about three scenes, and grinning wolfishly at the Italian Goddess.
Okay, so the laughs aren’t up to The Odd Couple. And the plots are a bit trite. But look at the talent! Grumpy is prettier, given there is snow throughout (which nearly took down Matthau with double pneumonia), but Grumpier has more stars for your buck. And the pros are gliding beyond their years of intense success at the top of their game.
A sweet thing is Burgess Meredith, playing Lemmon’s ferociously randy Pop and something of an icon in the TV room. He’s like a sexualised mad-Gremlin: all hideous double entendres, crass advice and madness in respected-actor form. Burgess was at the end of his career and already ill when these films were made. He left this world with a wink and a cackle: “Kids: can’t live with them; can’t shoot them.” What else could you want?
Ultimately, the whole set-up, characters, dialogue and second-line stars could fall away and you’d barely notice: the TV room rocked with laughter at the Matthau-Lemmon battle, twisting through ‘schmucks’ and ‘holy moleys’ until they had to admit affection. You will recognise these old men and women, rejoice in their insults, and love them.
Thrust a hand in a bargain bin near you. Take a fiver: time has passed and brilliance is cheap.