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
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
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.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice