FILM REVIEW: The Odd Couple (1968)

The Odd Couple (USA, 1968)
Directed by Gene Saks

Starring Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, John Fiedler, Herb Edelman

The Odd Couple is a comedy which has stood the test of time and survived all attempts made on its longevity, from its endless inferior imitators to its own god-awful sequel. Neil Simon's script, brought to the screen by Gene Saks, is still as razor-sharp as went it debuted on Broadway, and while not quite everything has translated smoothly to the big screen, it remains a yardstick against which modern comedies should be measured.When adapting a play for the big screen, one needs to create the impression of a world which is expansive. The spacial limitations that come from staging a play are not an immediate problem when making a film: you can't knock through walls in a theatre, but you can always build a bigger set.

If The Odd Couple has a flaw, it is that portions of it still feel stagey, and the ways in which it attempts to get around this are not entirely satisfactory. Rather than show every last angle of Oscar's flat, as would have been impossible on Broadway, Saks resorts to adding in a lot of extra scenes which may play well as set-pieces but feel disconnected and unnecessary. The screenplay, adapted by Simon himself, has been plumped full of travelogue scenes, ranging from Felix's botched suicide attempts to the guys driving around in Murray's car looking for him. As with Shadowlands, these scenes which are designed to broaden out the play and make the world expansive only serve to highlight how theatrical the finished product still feels.But like Shadowlands, it isn't hard to get beyond or forgive the stagey qualities of The Odd Couple once we have gotten on board with the characters and begun to laugh (or cry). And in one aspect, the limited space and use of long takes works to the advantage of the performers. Much of the original script requires characters to talk over each other or react quickly to changes in the others' postures. Although the actors have the scripts learnt in their heads, they approach every scene knowing that the word "cut!" could be at least two minutes away. This keeps the energy up and convinces us that these characters could exist beyond the occasional edit.This is particularly recognisable in the central performances, which blend together in perfect (dis)harmony from the outset. Walter Matthau, who had played the character on Broadway, is the perfect middle-aged slouch. He has charm, intellect and is loyal to his friends, but is incapable of running his own life, shambling around his spacious apartment like he has worn the same clothes all his life. Jack Lemmon, who steps into the shoes of Art Carney, really taps into the character's well-meaning up-tightness and self-hating neurosis. The scene of him clearing his ears in the diner is a perfect match of dry anxiety and belly laughs that would have made Woody Allen proud.

When The Social Network was deservedly garlanding awards attention, one aspect which was widely praised was Aaron Sorkin's script; it moved through the creation of Facebook at a blistering pace, conveying both the natural impatience of the characters and the ruthlessness of the world in which they exist. But the origins of Sorkin's rapid-fire screenplay can be found in Simon, whose characters have an equally large amount to say and are using language as a means of achieving political dominance, using every sentence to compete for space. And like The Social Network, it takes a few minutes for us to tune in and get used to the pace of the dialogue.But while The Social Network's script is designed to embody and convey impatience and impulsiveness, The Odd Couple is all about awkwardness and neurosis. On its simplest level it is the epitomic buddy movie, the film to which we owe everything from Lethal Weapon to Mississippi Burning. Popular culture has so readily embraced the archetypes of Felix and Oscar, the two opposites who don't attract but have to get along, that there almost isn't any point repeating the reasons for their appeal. Suffice to say, the combination works, as insight and as entertainment.Dig a little deeper, and the film becomes a comedy about catharsis and the difficulties of accepting the end of a relationship. Felix and Oscar have completely different approaches to the women in their lives, whether their ex-wives or their potential future brides in the shape of the Pigeon sisters. Felix finds it hard to let go of Frances even when she wants to repaint his room just after he's left: because so much of his life is based around things being beautiful on the surface, it is completely anathema that anyone should desert him, especially when, in his mind, he has done nothing wrong.

Oscar, on the other hand, hates even talking to Blanche, letting along paying her alimony. He wisecracks about her during the opening game, remarking that "Poland could live for a year on what my kids leave over for lunch!". His attitude towards woman is strictly one of personal interest; he invites the Pigeons over with the sole intention of bedding them. But as the film rolls on both characters pick up on each other's traits, learning to atone for their past mistakes on the one hand and to seize upon the various new chances of romance on the other.Within this exploration of two men's romantic relationships with women, there is also a more nuanced examination of platonic love. The Odd Couple is as much about men's desperate desire for love as it is about their seemingly inability to be emotional or discuss their problems with other men. Felix finds it easy to open up to the sisters about how much he misses his wife, but when he tries to talk to Oscar about it, he feigns disinterest. Likewise Oscar desperately tries to convey his happiness to Felix when the girls invite them back, but Felix interprets it as selfish sarcasm. These scenes are expertly staged so that they simultaneously make you laugh and break your heart.The Odd Couple also has elements of class struggle about it. In amongst the various complaints about Felix disinfecting the playing cards and insisting upon coasters, there is an undercurrent of snobbery on the part of Felix and a bitter reaction on the past of Oscar. Felix is richer than Oscar and has an emphasis on standards which he likes to make clear whenever possible. After the meatloaf has burned, he spits out the line that "people like you don't appreciate good cooking and that's why they eat TV dinners!". Oscar meanwhile is an ordinary white-collar guy who loves his job but has little in the way of ambition. He approaches Felix's standards in the same way as he approaches his cleaning: constant irritation, boiling over into anger and ending up as outright resentment.But even if you don't want to read into all these undercurrents, The Odd Couple still works as a simple comedy. The laughs are frequent and consistent, drawing subtly on the traditions of farce and comedies of manners to produce two hours' worth of severe chuckling. The smooth jazz score which punctuates the film gives certain sections the feeling of a silent movie, while the long awkward silences in the second act are like a lighter, less absurdist variant on the work of Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter. There's something for absolutely everyone, whether you pick up all the period details or not.With the exception of its occasional theatricality, The Odd Couple is a virtually perfect comedy. It's a real hum-dinger which still hits every note right on over 40 years after its release, and though the times have moved on it hasn't lost any of its subtle edge. Its personalities and conversations remain charming and familiar, and the performances are career high-points for all involved. A real must-see comedy.

Rating: 4.5/5

Verdict: A near-as-damnit perfect comedy


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