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
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
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
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
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
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.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    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