Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.
If some of your formative years were in the 1970s, you remember The Odd Couple on television. When I was a kid, it ran in syndication on WGN out of Chicago in the early evening, and over the course of however many years, I saw every episode as far as I know. I can’t say that I’ve resisted watching the movie version of The Odd Couple based on Neil Simon’s play, but I also haven’t really sought it out. My worry—and it’s a worry that seems to have come true in some respects—was that I already knew the characters well enough that the movie wouldn’t have anywhere to take me.
And that’s the problem with The Odd Couple. It’s not that we’ve got different people playing the main roles than I’m used to. Sure, I grew up on this being Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, but both of them were essentially doing versions of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau from this movie. It’s more that I knew where the characters got to in the show, and the movie is more or less the origin story. Origin stories don’t always interest me that much. Nevertheless, The Odd Couple leaves streaming soon enough, and so I figured I might as well get it watched.
There’s not a great deal of plot, but that’s okay because it doesn’t really need a lot of plot. We start with Felix Unger (Lemmon), who we discover is trying to kill himself by leaping out of a high window from a dirty hotel. However, he throws out his back trying to get the window open. He contemplates throwing himself in the East River, but eventually winds up at the apartment of his friend Oscar Madison (Matthau) on the night of their weekly poker game. Felix is suicidal because his 12-year marriage has just come to an end; his wife Francis has booted him out of the house. Taking pity on his friend, Oscar, recently divorced from his wife Blanche, invites Felix to move in with him. The two drive each other crazy for a bit, they have a disastrous date with a pair of sisters who also live in the building, and everything ends about as happily as we can expect for a couple of divorced guys up to their armpits in alimony payments.
The conceit of The Odd Couple is the interplay of the two main characters. Felix has a variety of neuroses and physical ailments. He has a bad back, nerve problems in his neck, sinus issues, bursitis, and probably a dozen more ailments. He’s also a neat freak, and can’t resist tidying up everything he comes across. Felix is not merely particular about things, he makes sure that everyone around him knows exactly how particular he is and why. Oscar, of course, is the exact opposite. Oscar is not merely a slob, he is an epic slob. The film takes place in early summer, and he’s still got a Christmas tree (a brown tree with no needles on it) up in his apartment. The only thing that prevents him from being a hoarder is that he doesn’t have enough stuff. So, naturally, the two personalities are going to clash.
It is a cleverly-written screenplay, which is par for the course with Neil Simon. I expected a clever script, even if that often means that the characters say things that normal people wouldn’t say or have supremely witty comebacks for everything that is being said around them. That’s easy to forgive. It’s especially easy to forgive when we have Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau as our twin main characters. The beautiful thing about the two of them working with this screenplay is that it allows them both to be the comic partner and the straight man at the same time. They are each other’s straight man throughout, taking turns with comic remarks and setting up the same for each other. They were generally great on camera together, and this is no exception. And of course it works because there is a genuine friendship here. It’s no shock that the two actors were great friends in real life, because the sort of friendship on the screen here is hard to fake.
So, with the film, there’s a lot to like, but I’m not convinced there’s a lot to love. That’s very much because I know and remember the television show so well. Someone without that background will find a great deal here to enjoy. But if you remember guys like Speed and Murray the cop or the suggestive leer at the mention of the Pigeon Sisters, the film here really does just feel like a prequel for the television show that followed it.
Why to watch The Odd Couple: Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.
Why not to watch: If you remember the television show, there’s not a lot of surprises here.