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
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
    She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

    Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

    The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
    American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

    Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

    James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

    Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

    Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution