FILM / Now is the winter of their discontent: Grumpy Old Men (12); The Adventures of Huck Finn (PG); Josh and SAM (12); Rookie of the Year (PG): A Business Affair (15); Look Who's Talking Now (12)

Quentin Curtis
Saturday 28 May 1994 23:02 BST

SEPTUAGENARIAN storming of the box-office is rare enough for us to raise a cheer even before Grumpy Old Men (12) starts. Starring Walter Matthau (73) and Jack Lemmon (a spring chicken of 69), it took dollars 70m in the US - a considerable feat in the culture of Culkin. But watching the film you understand why, since it too is about childhood - second childhood, and the infantilism of old age. Lemmon and Matthau play two miserable old codgers, neighbours in the Minnesota snow, who scrap and snarl in dependent enmity, with practical jokes and sour tirades. When Ann-Margret's merry widow moves in nearby, and improbably starts to flirt with the duo, she warms the frozen wasteland and stokes up the fires of jealousy.

Lemmon and Matthau have always been an odd couple. Not least of the oddities is how rarely they have been a couple. They're the Laurel and Hardy of this neurotic age, but Grumpy Old Men is only their fifth co-appearance, whereas Stan and Ollie starred together 26 times. Even allowing for the greater variety of modern careers, it's an indication of the fitful, tetchy nature of the Lemmon-Matthau relationship which has prevented us from taking them to our hearts (nobody refers to them as Jack and Walter). They have always been best playing off this abrasiveness, in rapid-fire exchanges, thriving on the tension of confinement - the shared flat of The Odd Couple, or the imprisoning hospital room in The Fortune Cookie.

There's an uneasiness in seeing this quintessentially urban couple in the wilds of the countryside, fishing and snow-fighting - going for slapstick gags. And it's surely a mistake not to give them more scenes together. Director Donald Petrie goes in for a lot of syncopated editing, switching between Lemmon cursing and fretting in his log cabin and Matthau cursing and fretting in his. This antiphonal approach stresses the characters' similarities rather than their differences, which were always the source of their comedy and chemistry. When they do act together, trading insults and gags, they transform a fairly thin script, hitting us with the old schtick.

Ann-Margret gives good, trilling support, striking a blow for middle age in a cast which, apart from Daryl Hannah and Kevin Pollak as the men's children, is a gerontocracy. Ossie Davis - on leave from Spike Lee - plays a local bait-shop owner, who speaks for the pleasures of old age, striking a note of rapture that the film's ending takes up. Before then, 85-year-old Burgess Meredith (who seems to have played old men since he was quite young), as Lemmon's priapic pa, suggests a darker view of old age, as a time of sexual despair, closer to the film's heart. The goatish Meredith, resembling Wilfrid Brambell's Steptoe, exhorts his boy to 'mount' the comely neighbour. It's good to see this old trooper still performing, but the material demeans him.

And then there is Jack Lemmon. A twist of Lemmon goes a long way. Despite the name, asperity or bitterness is what this arch ingratiator lacks. Here, over-deliberate and sickeningly folksy ('holy moly' and 'Jeez Louise' are his catchphrases), he's supposed to be a retired history professor. But that beaming face has no past in it, only the present urgency to be liked. It is far easier to believe in Matthau as a retired TV-repairman (there's an unexplored class frisson) - and he has bite and unexpectedness. But if anything he's a little too carefree, leaving his best moments for the out-takes which get played over the credits. Where Lemmon begs for our approval, Matthau barely bothers to perform. An odd couple indeed.

The Adventures of Huck Finn (PG) loses the texture of Twain's classic, but not its spirit. Twain's precise South-western and Mississippi dialects are blurred into a more palatable movie Southernness: the runaway slave Jim (Courtney B Vance) speaks something close to the Queen's English. The river itself, which in the book is capricious and treacherous, governing the narrative as well as Huck and Jim, is largely unexplored. The cinematography by Janusz Kominski, an Oscar-winner for Schindler's List, is beautiful, but in a picturesque, unexpressive way.

Nevertheless it's a delightful romp. The director and adaptor, Stephen Sommers, has filleted the book's key episodes and presents them at a whirling, compulsive pace. If Elijah Wood's puckish Huck doesn't conform to T S Eliot's view of the character as one of the most solitary figures in fiction, he does have the right restlessness and innocence. Sommers has made a paean to freedom, and places at its centre a Huck who represents the instinctive goodness that can triumph over convention. The lack of human pathos is compensated for by rich comedy, especially in the show-stealing scenes in which Jason Robards and Robbie Coltrane play shady con-men impersonating a pair of bereaved brothers in order to benefit from a will. For all its betrayals, minor and major, the film has clearly been made out of a love for the book.

Josh and SAM (12), a wayward but original tale about the role of lies and fantasy in childhood, might be a distant descendant of Huck Finn. Twelve-year-old Josh (Jacob Tierney) tells his rivalrous sibling, Sam, that his parents sold him to the US government to be transformed into a secret, self-guiding weapon - a Strategically Altered Mutant. The film hedges on whether Josh's fantasy is also its own: we are forever on the point of discovering the truth. What ensues is a kids' road-movie, with the children on the run from their separated parents. On the way, they may or may not have killed a man and they meet a girl (Martha Plimpton) who may or not be 'The Liberty Maid'. Confusing? But so is adolescence, the film is saying. The haze has the satisfying feel of observed confusion rather than cop-out certainty. Tierney is funny and convincing as Josh, channelling his pain into fights or fibs. And, as the perplexed dad, Stephen Tobolowsky (Groundhog Day's Ned Ryerson) cements his status as the cinema's foremost nerd-interpreter.

Still on childhood, Rookie of the Year (PG) is a baseball movie about a kid called Henry who, after surgery, develops such a powerful arm that he becomes a star pitcher with the Chicago Cubs. Baseball fans may feel as if they're watching an innings by Michael Jordan, now struggling after his switch from basketball, so many are the film's misses. Juicy satirical targets like sporting commercialism are passed by, and the action scenes are full of fumbles. As the wonder-kid, the relentlessly uncharismatic Thomas Ian Nicholas confirms the adage that you should never hire a leading man with three first names. If you don't know baseball, you won't understand the climax. If you do, you'll find it preposterous.

A Business Affair (15) is bad beyond the power of criticism to evoke. Its literary romantic triangle is reasonably plotted, but what fascinates is hearing fresh absurdities delivered by actors as distinguished as Christopher Walken (the avaricious publisher hero), Jonathan Pryce (his star author) and Carole Bouquet (the spoils). The script has an unerring instinct for the clunky detail, with a Euro-production feel, as if processed by a committee of translators.

Look Who's Talking Now (12) is a glutinous mix of all that's worst in movies: cloying sentimentality, anthropomorphised animals with actors' voices, music by the Smurfs, and a little boy coming to terms with there not being a Santa. Avoid.

Cinema details: Review, page 74.

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