REVIEWS / Ageing terms of endearment: Adam Mars-Jones on Grumpy Old Men, which reunites the film comedy double-act of Lemmon and Matthau. Plus round-up

The equation of human ages with seasons is a durable one, and accounts for the icebound Minnesota setting of the unambitious new comedy vehicle for Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, Grumpy Old Men. The two main characters are locked in mutual antagonism: they flail ineffectually at each other every time they meet (and they live next door to each other, so meetings are frequent), but we soon get the message that they're only swinging their arms to keep the blood moving, as a way of staying warm. Their interminable ritual insults ('Moron', 'Putz') are only endearments in disguise.

It may be that Hollywood is no more dishonest about old age than it is about any other area of life - sex, say, or war - but there is a particular tension involved in cinematic sweetening of this subject. The sentimentality of genre is on a collision course with the unsparingness natural to the camera. Watching The Whales of August, for instance, we may be attending to a story about a group of fictional characters, but we are also witnessing time's fastiduous work in the flesh of two icons, Lilian Gish and Bette Davis - Gish still recognisably the same woman as the star of Broken Blossoms so long ago, Davis hardly seeming continuous with herself in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Comics and character actors have a partial immunity from the stigma of ageing: they haven't offered themselves up as dream figures, so there's no sense of their having betrayed their audience by being human after all. One comic, George Burns, has even been able to turn old age into part of his act, the creakily blinking eyes and slowly flickering tongue into refinements of comic timing.

It was almost 20 years ago that Walter Matthau co-starred with Burns in The Sunshine Boys, but it's surprising how little his portrayal of a septuagenarian has altered now that he doesn't have to do research. He continues to play ageing as a form of loveable, bad nature, it's just that his neck and hands are more in character now.

The synthetic balance of desolation and uplift that Grumpy Old Men offers can be gauged from the fact that foul-mouthed, cranky Max Goldman - Matthau's character - has as his favourite expletive a word that hasn't had so much vogue since the 1960s: frigging. He's allowed to rail against the world, so long as he doesn't offend the family audience.

Matthau does have one potentially powerful moment, which also exploits the film's single effective location and interesting piece of sociology. When Minnesota's lakes freeze over, the ice becomes the site of a new settlement. Where Britons have huts at the seaside, Minnesotans have ice shanties. The insides of these shacks may be provided with armchairs and televisions, but their excuse for existing is ice fishing - a sport that seems even more inert than regular fishing. You drill a hole in your ice floor, prop up your favourite fishing rod and read the paper. Bingo] You catch supper. Or not.

The shanty town of shacks has its own attenuated social life - people chatting and promenading, even a snack stall in operation on the ice. But it's the interiors of these suburban igloos that are so arresting, the mixture of homey touches and indomitable cold, an illusion of comfort contrived in the least hospitable surroundings.

Matthau's moment comes when Max's unattended fishing rod, his beloved Green Hornet, is pulled down the hole by a fish resisting its fate as his supper. Wild with grief, Max strikes impotently at the ice with an axe, hoping to pierce the lake's thick rind and get his treasure back. To passers-by, of course, he looks simply insane. But here, like an over-sensitive fire alarm system that turns on the sprinklers when you make toast, director Donald Petrie lets Alan Silvestri's music intervene with a hopelessly incongruous jauntiness. The music, which trades only in jocularity and tremulous romanticism, extinguishes a moment of uncharacteristically dry emotion - rage and grief and absolute solitary loss. The loss even turns out to be reversible, though, since John Gustafson (Lemmon) finds the Green Hornet and eventually returns it to its owner.

Gustafson also has his rod restored to him, by a glamorous widow from California with a name straight out of Lord of the Rings, Ariel Truax. Ann-Margret plays the role with a fair amount of gumption, but this is a very bizarre portrait of a free spirit. In some ways, it's more like a young man's dream of a desirable older woman than an old man's idea of a younger one, but perhaps we should remember that Mark Steven Johnson wrote the script at the age of 25. Ariel has an air of living for the moment, expressing every impulse - she paints, she jet-skis, she rolls in the snow - but at the same time she has not had sex since her husband died five years ago. She's not so wild and free that fidelity and marriage are out of the question. Her reason for moving from California (eternal youth, eternal sunshine) to Minnesota and wintry company is never explained but seems to fall somewhere between eccentricity and perversion.

When Jack Lemmon is playing straight, in The China Syndrome, say, or Missing, there's often something ersatz about his persona of the ordinary Joe driven beyond endurance. It may be that Altman tried to harness this quality for Lemmon's part in Short Cuts, to have an insincere father played by an actor who has over-used his sincerity, but if so it was only partly successful. In Grumpy Old Men, he does find some fresh responses, when the incomprehensible Ariel turns her seductiveness on him.

Johnson wrote the script with Lemmon and Matthau in mind, and their routines contain nothing new (his writing for the young lovers, sweetly played by Daryl Hannah and Kevin Pollak, is much fresher). In one out-take, tagged on to the end of a film in the manner of comedy TV shows, Lemmon and Matthau forget their lines but bicker on plausibly without benefit of language. In their prime, the by-play of these two was like an entertainingly bad marriage, but time has made their antagonism seem perfunctory, and the rapport that underlies it somehow smug.

See opposite for details

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker