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Film Life

The wit and wisdom of Grumpy Old Men

Grumpy Old Men has become one of the few movies I return to every Christmastime, along with The Family Stone and It’s A Wonderful Life. Though (or maybe because), like those other movies, it’s only partially about Christmas.

It’s schmaltzy to a fault, but also an hilarious showcase for the legendary comedic chemistry between Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, forged over decades of working together.

Matthau was open about taking the role only for mercenary purposes. His co-star Kevin Pollak talked about chatting with Matthau on the set before their first scene together:

I said, “So, Walter, script’s pretty good, huh?” And he said, “The script sucks, kid. I owe my bookie $2 million.”

You’d never know it though. Matthau and Lemmon fully commit to their acerbic, chops-busting banter, which is the core strength of the movie.

The movie also stumbles upon a few bits of wisdom that have stuck with me, most of which comes not from the titular men but from the people around them. Like Ariel, the free-spirited neighbor turned love interest played by Ann-Margret. Here’s what she said to acknowledge the death of a mutual friend:

“We can be thankful that we had the privilege of knowing him while he was still here.”

She also drops this doozy during an argument with Lemmon’s John Gustafson, whom she accuses of being too stuck in his ways:

“The only things in life that you regret are the risks you don’t take.”

Finally, Burgess Meredith—absolutely slaying in a supporting role as Gustafson’s horny, incorrigible father—lends this uncharacteristically reflective bit:

The first ninety years go by fast. Then one day you wake up and realize you’re not 81 anymore. You begin to count the minutes rather than the days. And you realize that pretty soon you’ll be gone. And that all you have is the experiences. That’s all there is. Everything! The experiences!

The experience of watching the movie’s combination of sincerity, silliness, and un-Christmaslike shenanigans (along with its wondrously snowy northern Minnesota setting) is what keeps me coming back every year.

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Film Review

Some Like It Hot

Published in the North Central Chronicle on November 2, 2007, as part of a series called “Chad Picks Classic Flicks.”

After tackling a few different genres—film noir, thriller, crime drama—all of which can take a heavy toll on your senses, I thought it best to visit a genre much older than the film medium and more eternal than the line at the bookstore: comedy.

There are many things that make me laugh. Some are obvious: Hans Moleman from The Simpsons getting hit in the groin with a football, Ron Burgundy repeatedly insisting that he wants to “be on” Veronica Corningstone, and G.O.B. doing his chicken dance on Arrested Development.

But other things that make me laugh are more subtle: Nigel Tufnel showing off his amp that goes to eleven in This Is Spinal Tap; Lloyd Christmas saying “follow me” to Harry Dunne in Dumb & Dumber; Dwight Schrute admitting to loving Count Chocula in The Office. Those not-so-obvious ways of making people laugh are certainly more difficult to create, and that’s why good comedy can be very hard to find.

Luckily, the American Film Institute has found it for us. They made a list of 100 American comedies worth their rental price, and my choice for classic comedy just happens to be number one on that list. That film is Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959).

In Depression era Chicago, two struggling musicians, Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon), witness the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre between two rival gangs. When the gangster in charge spots Joe and Jerry, they flee in a hurry and try to arrange to leave the city to escape their pursuers. The problem is that the only available gig is with an all-female big band.

But that doesn’t stop the dynamic duo. They simply disguise themselves as females and raise their voices up an octave, effectively transforming from Joe and Jerry to Josephine and Daphne. They’re convincing enough to fool everyone in the band and are soon bound for Florida, safe from their chasers.

The “girls” quickly become popular among their female companions. They meet the ukulele player and vocalist Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe) and immediately beginning fighting for her attention, all the while struggling to maintain their feminine guise. This proves difficult as Jerry soon falls for Sugar and is tempted to blow his cover and run off with her, but he eventually accepts Sugar’s sultry demeanor as something he can never embrace—as a woman, at least.

Meanwhile, as the band arrives at a Florida resort, Josephine and Daphne discover that the gangsters they tried to evade had tracked them down. Soon they are running for their lives, all the while trying to sustain their alter-egos and survive unscathed.

Admittedly, this film doesn’t sound anything like a comedy, much less a good one. But, frankly, it’s hilarious. The Academy Award-nominated screenplay overflows with wickedly clever one-liners and double entendres. Jack Lemmon especially has a razor-sharp delivery. When Daphne and Josephine are first welcomed into the band, another girl asks if they are the new girls. “Brand new,” he says.

In addition to the superb dialogue, the actors maneuver through riotous sight gags and sticky situations. At one point, Jack Lemmon, who is enormously gifted at physical humor, is dressed in drag and an “uplifting” brassiere doing the tango with an eccentric millionaire. Any other actor would have overacted the moment, but Lemmon provides the perfect expression that becomes an uproarious moment.

Topping off at 2 hours, Some Like It Hot feels like a period drama that just happens to feature hilarious cross-dressing musicians jumping from one farcical scene to the next. But this film is unlike its comedy counterparts of today’s cinema. There are no penis jokes, no foul-mouthed perverts, no bikini-clad bimbos; just well-crafted, smart, knee-slapping comedy.

Billy Wilder, the director and co-screenwriter, was most well-known for his dramatic films like Double Indemnity (1944) and Sunset Boulevard (1950), which is why there is just as much plot as there is humor; a rarity in modern comedies. This characteristic is what sets Some Like It Hot apart from other comedies and why it topped AFI’s list.

If you’re looking for laughs that aren’t aimed at those who have been lobotomized, check out Some Like It Hot. Even if it’s not the funniest movie you’ve ever seen, it’s probably smarter than your favorite comedy. I realize that laughs don’t always coincide with intelligence (example: Epic Movie), but at least Some Like It Hot won’t cause your IQ to drop.