There are some comedy duos that just plain work, pairs that are natural together and inherently funny. Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau were one of those teams. Even when the film they were wasn't the best, when the two men were on screen opposite one other, there was magic at work. When the script they were working with was good, the two were an unbeatable duo. The recently released to Blu-ray Grumpy Old Men certainly isn't the height of their comic genius, but it does represent a truly funny movie and Lemmon and Matthau are at the top of their game in it.
The story follows two older men, John Gustafson (Lemmon) and Max Goldman (Matthau) as they engage in a next-door neighbor rivalry that has been going on for nearly 50 years. Things reach a head in the film as a new, attractive woman, Ariel Truax (Ann-Margret), moves in across the street. Gustafson and Goldman didn't really need anything new to fight about, but both will use any excuse they can possibly latch onto to attack the other.
It is in these attacks that the film finds most of its humor. The two crotchety men battle it out doing everything from changing television channels in the middle of a show (Goldman in his house using a remote to affect the TV in Gustafson's), to placing a dead fish in the other's backseat, to numerous other, equally memorable, things.
Donald Petrie's direction of Mark Steven Johnson's script doesn't just let Matthau and Lemmon get away with cheap practical jokes however. No, instead, the two actors are also forced to look at some of the harsh realities of getting old. Both men are widowers, and both men's kids (played by Darryl Hannah and Kevin Pollak) have lives of their own. Gustafson and Goldman don't really live in a world which has passed them by – they are very much involved in their community – but there is a certainly loneliness the men both feel.
Without that sense of loneliness, the practical jokes that they play one another may come across as harsh or cruel, but, with that loneliness, they don't. No matter how much the two men complain about one another and claim to hate each other, they quite obviously revel in joking with each other – they're infuriated by the other, but there's clearly a great respect and love (even if they won't admit it) underneath it all.
Grumpy Old Men works as a film because of that love and respect. These aren't two cutthroat heartless souls, they are two men who care very much about the world and each other. There's nothing overtly said for much of the film about that respect, it's just a sense that Lemmon and Matthau are able to infuse into the characters.
Another reason the film feels like more than just a series of cruel practical jokes is the well-rounded cast. In addition to the main stars and supporting players listed above, the film is full of other great supporting members. Burgess Meredith appears as John's father, Ossie Davis as the owner of the local bait-and-tackle shop, and Buck Henry as an IRS agent.
The Blu-ray release of Grumpy Old Men, is, sadly, a very bare-bones affair – it doesn't even start on a menu screen, it launches right into the movie, which seems to be because the menu is practically non-existent. Soundtrack selection (Dolby TrueHD 2.0 and Dolby Digital 2.0) as well as subtitles (English, French, and Spanish) can't be selected from the main menu, only from the in-film pop-up menu. And, the only extra on the disc is a trailer. The 2.0 sound is perfectly adequate for a comedy, but certainly not all-encompassing. The visuals are only slightly better than a DVD (the detail in the creases of Matthau's face are impressive), and while the print is a relatively clean one, there are still imperfections to be found in it. The opening particularly looks poor, with the static shot of the Warner Bros. shield flickering noticeably.
Whatever imperfections the release itself may have, the film is still an hysterically funny one. Lemmon and Matthau are stellar actors who play brilliantly off one another, and the script not only gives the two the chance to be funny, but to show their serious sides as well. Additionally, the supporting cast (especially Meredith) are excellent. Like its stars, Grumpy Old Men isn't the flashiest film ever created, but it is well-crafted and well worth one's time.