Directed by Gene Saks
The plot of The Odd Couple orbits divorce, taking place in a time when I have to assume divorce was still a stigmatized novelty. Most of the jokes are derived from the very idea that two middle-aged men could share an apartment, especially as they quickly fall into a conventional husband-wife dynamic. Later in the film they will organize a date night with two women whose respective divorces bond them to the two men, or really just Felix (Jack Lemmon).
After his wife leaves him, and after a few failed attempts at a suicide attempt (he doesn’t get far thanks to jammed windows, strained backs, etc.), Felix moves in with his best friend, the affectionate curmudgeon Oscar (Walter Matthau). Oscar’s wife left him eight months before, and his apartment is far too big for only one person, meaning that there’s plenty of room for Felix and that there will be plenty of room for them to avoid each other when things aren’t going so well.
Where Oscar is the slob, Felix is the one who maintains order, becoming, again in a stereotypical sense, the wife. He cleans, cooks, chastises Oscar for not using a coaster and bugs him about that night’s dinner while he’s at work. The way Oscar grumbles about him to his friends, and the way Felix argues with him about not phoning to say he’s going to be home late, well it all goes back to some kind of mid-50s family dynamic we’ve seen before.
If I sound somewhat unenthused, I don’t mean to be, because The Odd Couple is strangely magnificent. Matthau and Lemmon embody these roles so fully, down to the most seemingly insignificant details like the creases in their forehead.
Lemmon is adept at playing someone down on his luck (The Apartment and Glengarry, Glen Ross), and he gets to lean into all of those same charms here. He’s vulnerable, neurotic and overly sincere, his eyes pleading with you whenever he’s onscreen, as if you have anything to offer him. Just picture Gil, the perpetually struggling salesman from The Simpsons, he is based on Lemmon’s character from Glengarry, Glen Ross.
Matthau, on the other hand, is charming, grumpy and completely unable to put a facade over his true feelings. He’s an easy going guy comfortable with the bare minimum. When he smiles, his whole face smiles, in a way both amusing and maddening, as if he’s either listening to every word you say or ignoring it all completely.
The film works because the actors work. They exaggerate every little motion, and Lemmon gets to play around with a character allergic to apparently everything. In one diner scene he will sneeze more or less throughout the entire scene, and in a separate moment Matthau will criticize his friend while crying the whole time.
These are sad men who find strength in each other when they’re not feuding, which they constantly are. They bicker like best friends or siblings do, somehow able to convey both contempt and affection in the same expression.
Up Next: The Odd Couple (1968), Cop Car (2015), Beetlejuice (1988)