Rapid Response: The Odd Couple (1968)

There’s always an issue today with watching movies from the ‘60s and ‘70s that later turned into TV shows. People like my Mom and others have greater memories and penchants for the spin-offs than they do the actual source material, and this is true of “MASH,” “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” and now I learn “The Odd Couple.”

The whole pitch for the TV show “The Odd Couple” was that it was a pairing of two men, one a slob and the other a neat freak. HOW WILL THEY EVER GET ALONG?!? (sitcom hilarity ensues) I’m sure there were some homosexual undertones in there as well.

But the film, which is strikingly faithful to the Neil Simon play of the same name, is really about more than opposites attracting. Simon calls up the problems that can arise in marriage through people who know each other too well and grow to hate each other’s quirks. The simple difference here is that the woman’s role is switched.

And Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau know each other all too well. The slovenly nature of Oscar’s (Matthau) apartment is exactly what makes their weekly poker games fun and Felix’s (Lemmon) oddities are exactly what make him a likeable lug (even if he does wear his seatbelt at a drive-in movie).

This “optimistic sarcasm” between friends feels very natural, and the screenplay, also by Simon, is wonderfully written. Oscar and Felix thrive as friends purely because of Simon’s witty and self-deprecating back and forth.

Points can also be awarded to the film over the show for simply having two comic actors with wonderful chemistry, Lemmon and Matthau. They were a common screen-pairing going well into the ‘90s, and together they made some good and not very good movies.

Lemmon especially is terrific. He’s always been a wonderfully versatile actor, and his dramatic chops give the film an added dimension of darkness in the opening montage in which he tries to kill himself. The film’s first shot shows Lemmon wide, and yet we can easily tell how glum he looks. And then with one line to the hotel clerk, “Do you have anything higher,” we know precisely his intentions. He’s a master, and he follows through his neuroticism with a sheer pluck and confidence in his physical comedy.

“The Odd Couple” just expired on Netflix Instant, which is a shame, but I guess it’s possible some people would prefer to watch the TV show anyways.

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