They’re back! Some 30 years and a dozen films and plays later, odd couple Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau are bowed but not undone by “Grumpier Old Men.” The latter day Hope-Crosby duo is on the road to Wabasha, Minn., with delightful results, uproarious comedy and good-humored affection. It all adds up to a commercial winner on the domestic front with OK offshore prospects.
The success of this new outing isn’t just the rock-solid bickering combo. The ensemble cast — all reprising, with the addition of Sophia Loren and Ann Guilbert — play the comedy and romance to perfection, with director Howard Deutch adroitly stepping out of the way to ensure that the simple saga remains entertaining and poignant. But credit most significantly belongs to scripter Mark Steven Johnson. His observation of and compassion for the characters eschews mock sentimentality and provides dignity amid the ribald banter and utter childishness of the pension-age adolescents.
Lifelong buddies John Gustafson (Lemmon) and Max Goldberg (Matthau) continue to snipe and spar — for what other sport is there in rural Minnesota? — and pursue the legendary Catfish Hunter in the Land o’ Lakes. They refrain from the game of hurling epithets only to engage in marriage plans for John’s single-parent daughter, Melanie (Daryl Hannah), and Max’s son Jacob (Kevin Pollak). John himself has recently married Ariel (Ann-Margret).
That harmony is threatened by Maria Ragetti (Loren) and mother Francesca (Guilbert), who have arrived from Italy to transform a cousin’s bait shop into a ristorante. Max, on principle, objects to any change. But it’s spring in the Northland, and animus turns amorous, with a new lease on love for the pair as well as for Mama and the humorously bawdy Grandpa Gustafson (Burgess Meredith).
Dramatically, there are few surprises in this souffle. But to encounter an American film that has a true connection with characters older than 50 is refreshing. While the population of “Grumpier Old Men” unquestionably live in a never-never land where restaurants seemingly have no patrons and the inhabitants work at invisible jobs, the emotions have an unerring veracity.
The movie has a relaxed tone that’s rare but understandable, considering the principals’ professional range and centuries of collective experience. The performers have nothing left to prove, so the challenge here has more to do with surprising themselves and allowing an audience to join in that personal delight.
In a cast of scene-stealers, special note goes to Loren for weathering the passage of time beautifully, and to Meredith for a spirit of youth that has spanned seven decades. Outtakes over the end credits are a wonderful reminder of the professional canniness and natural humor the cast brings to the venture.
Tech credits are a significant cut above the norm for a comedy, especially the crisp, textured look provided by cameraman Tak Fujimoto. “Grumpier” is a welcome continuation that leaves you wanting for another chapter that’s as rich in humanity and fun as the initial companion pieces.