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The Old Couple

It has been thirty years since compulsive fussbudget Felix Unger began clearing away the moldy bread crusts, stale cigar butts and melted candy bars from the New York apartment of dedicated slob Oscar Madison, thirty years since Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau joined a battle of wills and a farce of ill manners that became a classic of mainstream movie comedy. The very term "odd couple" can scarcely arise in casual conversation without conjuring up an image of the two discarded husbands--neatly pressed Felix and rumpled Oscar--pushed nose-to-nose in heated debate.

This burden of tradition, of near-greatness in plainclothes (made even heavier by the popularity of the long-running TV series starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman), does nothing to help old troupers Lemmon and Matthau as they try to resuscitate one of the most beloved domestic arguments in America. From its reliance on sappy geezer jokes to its discomfiting Roman numeral, The Odd Couple II has about it an air of weary desperation. You can't go home again, not even with Neil Simon doing his best to dust off the old magic.

In the new picture, in which almost nothing is new, sports nut Oscar has retired to balmy Sarasota, where he covers the odd bush-league ballgame and continues to host disheveled poker games, now enacted with a quartet of blowsy widows for nickel-and-dime stakes. Worried about their health, they snack on tofu pastrami and salt-free nachos with cottage-cheese sauce. Simon humor, Simon impure.

Up in Manhattan, Felix does charity hospital work with his Windsor knot still neatly tied. He has apparently defeated his suicidal demons, but not his array of phobias. He's still allergic to smoke, hairspray and perfume, and he's encased his expensive luggage in clear vinyl, like the divan in Aunt Thelma's parlor.

What can be left in the way of combat for these old prisoners of the mind? As playwright Simon would have it, they are thrown back into the fray, after seventeen years of separation, by (enter irony) the sudden wedding of Oscar's son Brucey (Jonathan Silverman) and Felix's daughter Hannah (Lisa Waltz) out in alien Southern California. That the men are now in their seventies and should be overseeing the nuptials not of their kids but of their grandchildren is a dramatic nicety that Simon and workaday director Howard Deutsch ignore as blithely as the fact that Felix sprains a knee at the L.A. airport and seems to be unaffected an hour later.

Almost before you can say "nostalgia," Felix and Oscar are trapped in the same rental car. Two syllables after that, we are trapped in a predictable road movie. The inseparable antagonists of yore quickly get themselves lost on the desert byways of California. Naturally, the car blows up. Armed only with Simon's exhausted one-liners ("For a minute I thought I saw Omar Sharif on a camel"), they tangle with a truck driver smuggling illegal aliens. They encounter a pair of painted bimbos (Christine Baranski and Jean Smart) in a honky-tonk who are the polar opposites of the proper Pigeon sisters of the original. They also get into it with the bimbos' redneck husbands. They get a lift from a ninety-year-old driving a Rolls-Royce going slower than the passing joggers. No fewer than three times, the boys are hauled into the local police station.

Simon and Deutsch even choose to mimic the famous cropduster-at-the-crossroads scene from North by Northwest, just so they can cover our heroes in powdery white stuff and further delay their arrival at the wedding. All this misfiring misadventure in the open air is enough to make you yearn for Oscar's long-gone dump of an apartment. The untidy confinement of the place and Felix's neatnik renovations put a sharp edge on the bickering co-dependents that the rural California wastelands just don't nourish. Instead, we try to absorb Simon's "updated" dialogue. "We mix like oil and frozen yogurt," Oscar carps. Or tofu and pastrami.

At this late date, there's no use pointing out that even in its time, the original Odd Couple was an old-fashioned, foursquare comedy dedicated wholly to Simon's zingers. Reproducing that style three decades later, with jokes to match, may bring nostalgiaphiles back to the multiplex for a moment, but the moment has passed. Even though the end of The Odd Couple II opens the door for yet another renewal of hostilities, the time-honored Lemmon-Matthau chemistry set seems to be fresh out of explosions. Witness the fatigue in their most recent efforts, Grumpier Old Men and Out to Sea (all told, the two have made ten movies together). Watching Oscar and Felix run the familiar comic chord changes here is a little like watching Willie Mays and Duke Snider play in the old-timers' game. Once they were great--peerless, even. In their dotage, we merely respect them as sad relics of the past.

I don't know if the principals in this ossified sequel could have benefited from, say, a dip in Cocoon's miraculous fountain of youth, but were it available, Matthau and Lemmon would have done well to dunk Neil Simon a couple of times, too. Because the old couple is not nearly as odd as it once was, and this spat should probably be put to rest.

The Odd Couple II.
Screenplay by Neil Simon. Directed by Howard Deutsch. With Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Jonathan Silverman and Jean Smart.

 
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