On the Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau scale, “Grumpy Old Men” comes closer to the languor of “Buddy, Buddy” than the inspired lunacy of “The Odd Couple” or “The Fortune Cookie,” saddling the two old pros with so-so material. Still, under Donald Petrie’s direction, the pic emerges as light, reasonably pleasant and undoubtedly sappy holiday entertainment, though box office appeal may be limited to those who saw the duo’s more legendary pairings in their initial release.
Warner Bros. added the film to its year-end arsenal at the last minute, and the move makes sense. All of the action takes place from Thanksgiving to Christmas, and the movie at times feels like a Hallmark holiday special when it isn’t painting in broad slapstick strokes.
Looking craggy and dour, Lemmon and Matthau play aging Minnesota neighbors whose decades-old feud is rekindled when they become enamored with a fetching widow, the aptly named Ariel (Ann-Margret), who moves in across the street.
Ariel literally barges into both of their lives, spouting New Age aphorisms about lost opportunity and seizing the moment in a sort of near-dead poets society. In the process, she breathes life into John (Lemmon) and Max (Matthau), who at the start seem content to live out their lives alone watching TV, fishing off the frozen lake and insulting each other.
There are subplots, though not so you’d notice. John’s daughter (Daryl Hannah) is estranged from her husband, and Max’s son (Kevin Pollak) harbors a long-standing crush on her. John also faces the threat of losing his house because of an irksome IRS agent (Buck Henry) and receives romantic advice from his randy 94-year-old father (Burgess Meredith, a hoot in the film’s showiest role).
Petrie, who directed “Mystic Pizza,” oscillates a bit awkwardly between humorous and bittersweet moments during the first two acts, and the film provides few big laughs before rushing to its warm, fuzzy and overly tidy conclusion.
Part of the problem is the script by newcomer Mark Steven Johnson, whose dialogue proves a bit pedestrian. John and Max repeatedly snap “moron” and “putz” at each other, for example, as if no one could come up with more creative invectives.
Both Matthau and Lemmon are appropriately crotchety, but the almost unseemly childishness of their behavior never shows either actor at his best — a situation exacerbated by the unflattering photography and bleak, bitterly cold backdrop.
The film doesn’t truly shine, in fact, until a fabulous, worth-the-price-of-admission outtake sequence over the closing credits, displaying a connection between the performers that isn’t made anywhere near as well during the preceding 100 minutes.
In the same vein, Ann-Margret has little to work with as the merry widow, so ditzy at the outset it’s hard to take her seriously in more poignant scenes. Hannah, Pollak and Ossie Davis all receive relatively little screen time in support but make the most of it.
Tech credits are satisfactory, though Alan Silvestri’s score shovels sentimentality as thick as the snow, underscoring tonal similarities between “Old Men” and its most obvious competition this season, Fox’s “Mrs. Doubtfire”– both films to which one could take parents, kids or unwelcome guests in a pinch.
Maybe if Warner Bros. had talked Lemmon into doing his drag number again, they’d really have something here.