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.