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.
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