Only a dynamic comedy duo like Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau can find the comedy in even the hopeless of characters.
In their second pairing together, Lemmon and Matthau showcase their hilarious chemistry in The Odd Couple, which was released 50 years ago in 1968. Their divorced, lonely characters are at odds in every way, giving us some of the best comedy in the simplest of settings. The most impressive aspect of their performances is their ability to find the humor in dark circumstances. In part thanks to the superb script by Neil Simon, Lemmon and Matthau’s characters are what we love to see in comedy now but rarely saw 50 years ago. It’s the actors’ talent that brought them to life unlike other comedians could and made them memorable even today.
Originally a play adapted for the screen, The Odd Couple is about two men, Felix (Lemmon) and Oscar (Matthau), who come to live together as roommates after Felix attempts multiple times to commit suicide. Their conflicting personalities quickly lead to linguine-filled fights and tons of laughs as the two men deal with Felix’s newfound bachelor lifestyle. While the two fight endlessly, they also deeply care about each other and help each other out of their pits of despair to find companionship with one another.
The movie begins with Felix’s attempts to kill himself, a gloomy sequence showing him booking a hotel room high enough to jump out of. Even then, with eyes glistening with tears and a solemn look on his face uncharacteristic of Lemmon, he’s able to find the humor so slight but so smart. His attempt to kill himself that follows is even funnier, using physical comedy at his hopeless attempts to jump out the window. It’s hard to watch Lemmon, who we usually see as a jovial jokester, walking aimlessly in a crowd of people partying with the saddest look on his face. It’s this contrast between his heartbreaking performance and the comedy involved that makes the opening of the movie so enticing and truly remarkable. Lemmon is one of the few comedic actors who could pull this off so well.
The whole movie pokes fun at some of the heartwrenching issues we deal with all the time–lonliness, heartbreak, depression, etc.–without being insensitive to the characters. It’s Oscar’s deep concern for Felix’s well-being that brings them together under one roof and keeps them there even when they irritate each other. The characters make fun of Felix for his reaction to his divorce, but bend over backward to make sure he doesn’t kill himself. While we as an audience are able to laugh at the situation, we always care about the characters and their struggles. Flawed and troubled characters like Felix litter modern comedies now but are only successful if they handle the characters with as much care as Felix and Oscar are given.
The comedy in the darkness of The Odd Couple comes from the mistakes everyone makes in trying to deal with the heartbreak and loneliness. Felix throws out his back as he tries to jump out the window, which becomes a very funny running gag. His friends try to sidestep his suicidal tendencies when he crashes their poker game. Unaware of the best way to deal with their friend’s suicide attempt, they all go about it the wrong way and make the funniest awkward scene in the process. The mistakes they make are hilarious to us and take away from the solemn nature of the plot.
That darkness underlies the movie, but once Oscar and Felix move in together, the comedy comes from their opposite personalities. Thankfully, the comedy turns into the silly and less serious kind we are used to with Lemmon. The jokes become less about his suicide and more about why he and Oscar butt heads. It’s a breather for the audience, but also shows the range of the script and the actors. The Odd Couple is able to take on the silliness of a buddy comedy and the seriousness of a black comedy all in the same movie. This is where Matthau shines the most, being able to play next to Lemmon with as much talent. The chemistry he brings to the silliness of the second half of the film is necessary for the film to work. Below is a clip of one of the funniest scenes, featuring Felix and his sinus condition.
Despite being stuck in an apartment for most of the movie, the comedy and depth The Odd Couple achieves are one we remember long after we see it. The chemistry between characters is unmistakenly perfect, so much so they were able to make a sequel with Lemmon and Matthau 30 years after the first. The characters made another appearance soon after, this time in a television remake of the movie. The most accessible and best of all the rendition of The Odd Couple story is obviously the first movie, which features dynamic leads we’ll remember for another 50 years.