'Grumpy Old Men': When 'Odd Couple' become odd neighbors

December 24, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Bah, humbug. Grumpy? GRUMPY! They call this grumpy?

Two doddering old neighbor men spit feeble wisecracks at each other when a beautiful woman moves in next door. Ooo, that makes me mad.

Grumpy is . . . when your @

! kids awaken you Christmas morning before 10! It's when the mother-in-law expects to be listened to. It's when your wife wants to plan a nice family trip to . . . "The Nutcracker." And the little men inside your head begin their insistent whisper: Grrrr-rrrrr-rrrrrr. That's grumpy.

So they really should have called "Grumpy Old Men" "Grumpy Old Men/Amateur Division," because these guys never quite reach the pitch of true professional grumpiness -- the seething, palpitating sense of burning anger that produces that state of wondrous sourness in which pain becomes a pleasure in and of itself. This movie doesn't even get it.

Set in a small Minnesota town, the movie plays with the archetypes invented years back by stars Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in "The Odd Couple." Well, they're still odd but they're not a couple.

Lemmon is a retired history teacher now engaged in petty warfare with the IRS, to the infinite chagrin of his daughter, played by Darryl Hannah, and the infinite delight of next-door neighbor Matthau, some kind of retired blue-collar worker. Both are widowers, both marginally comfortable, both enjoy the low-intensity warfare that passes between them.

There's a lot of ice-fishing comedy in "Grumpy Old Men." You know -- frozen bass, those little shacks sliding all over the place, fishing rods that break; stuff that was so ancient Charlie Chaplin said no and chose to eat a shoe rather than a frozen bass. Why does Hollywood always think that ice fishing is funny? Has anyone in Hollywood ever ice fished for a single second? That ticks me off.

But what really ticks me off is this phony beauty thing. I hate it when a beautiful woman moves to town -- a woman so beautiful that, male nature being what it is, she'd be pursued by every rich, greedy, self-important shark in town -- and, according to the movie, nobody notices except two grumpy old men.

Ann-Margret plays Ariel, and a signal weakness is that the movie isn't quite sure what to do with her. I hate it when they do that. It really burns me. At first she seems almost like a spirit -- Ariel, after all, is a Shakespearean spirit's name, and she's always laying in the snow making angel wings, and in her presence a man dies mysteriously. So you're thinking: ahh, she's the angel of death or something. Bruce Joel Rubin wrote this picture?

But no: She's just a woman named Ariel who happens to have the flawless alabaster perfection of the last great starlet and a fondness for grumpy old men. Oh, there are lots of them around, don't you know?

Well, as it progresses, "Grumpy Old Men" actually improves somewhat; its second half is twice as good as its first half, because there's a good deal less about ice fishing for frozen bass and more direct snap-crackle-and-pop between the contending grumpy old men. The movie -- oh, this steams me -- wastes Kevin Pollack, who has some real edge, as Matthau's nicey-nice son who has a secret crush on nicey-nice Darryl Hannah. And it also pushes us through the inevitable is-it-a-heart-attack-or-indigestion thing, but both Lemmon and Matthau seem to be having fun.

Actually, "Grumpy Old Men's" funniest bits come after the credits, when they run outtakes. Maybe they should have forgotten the movie and concentrated on the outtakes. Bah! What's wrong with the world these days? Nobody knows how to do anything right!

"Grumpy Old Men"

Starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau

Directed by Daniel Petrie

Released by Warner Bros.

PG-13

** 1/2

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