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Friday, May 17, 2013

"The Odd Couple" 1968. How America, and American Manhood, Has Changed


I was at a small local library looking over DVDs. 1968's "The Odd Couple" looked like the best bet in a batch of slim pickings. It's about middle-aged, divorced men. I'm not a man; I'm not divorced. The film's famous running gag about one clean roommate and one dirty roommate struck me as shopworn. Bleh. I took it out anyway and thought I'd give it a try.

Within minutes, I was floored by how excellent "The Odd Couple" is.

I remembered something that Roger Ebert said in an interview with Martin Scorcese. Ebert said that "Raging Bull" was a great movie. People would protest that they didn't want to see it because they didn't want to see a film about boxers. No, Ebert insisted. The subject matter of a film is not the heart of the film. Rather, it's how well a film is made that matters. An expertly made film about boxers is better than a badly made film about a topic you may be interested in. So, no, I'm not a man; I'm not divorced. But "The Odd Couple" was so well made that I fell in love with it. I surprised myself by laughing out loud throughout the film.

"The Odd Couple," of course, is the story of news writer Felix Unger leaving his wife and children and moving in with his friend, sports writer Oscar Madison, who is himself a divorcee. Oscar lives in an eight-room Manhattan apartment, which he used to share with his wife and their kids. Felix is neat; Oscar is messy. Sounds pretty trite.

But the movie is a revelation. The script reveals surprising depth about love, hate, and human relationships. The Walter-Matthau-Jack-Lemmon team is like a well-oiled machine – they seem to have perfected their shtick together through several lifetimes.

Jack Lemmon plays the entire movie completely straight. He gives the exact same kind of performance as he did when he was acting in "The Days of Wine and Roses," a hyper serious film about alcoholism. When Lemmon, as Felix, is upset about his meatloaf burning, he shows as much agony as he showed in the previous film about a drunk ruining his own life. It's hysterically funny to watch this poor schmuck wrestle with his petty obsessions and compulsions, oblivious to how he affects others. Even as you laugh at him, you realize he can't help himself. Felix Unger has Asperger's.

What has changed in America, and American film, that this film from 1968 feels like a time capsule from a lost moment in America? Oscar lives in a spacious, eight-room Manhattan apartment. Manhattan real estate has become more expensive, of course. But it's more than that.

The words that kept going through my head as I was watching the movie were "grown-up" and "intelligent."

Oscar, Felix, and their poker buddies are six white guys. They meet and play poker. There are no scenes where these adult, white men are revealed to be inept in comparison to women, blacks, or homosexuals. There are no scenes where the sassy gay man instructs the straight men on how to dress or create romance. There are no scenes where the "magical negro" shows the men that they can't dance. There are no scenes where a woman puts the men down for not knowing how to take care of children or shows the men up as being blinded by lust. There are no scenes where these straight, white men are made to apologize for being straight, white men.

The men are grownups. They have jobs. They wear adult clothing. They wear white shirts and ties, slacks, belts, and shiny shoes. Oscar does wear a backwards baseball cap, but he is the clown of the group. And he does not wear it throughout the film. When he goes out, he dresses properly.

They speak of their marriages as if marriage were something important. They speak of their children as if they love them.

They go on dates. They ask women out, dress up for the occasion, and make witty banter with subtle double entendres.

While watching "The Odd Couple," I thought of recent Judd Apatow comedies starring men like Jason Segel, Paul Rudd and Jonah Hill. These current male stars all play children; they all play losers. They play failed men. The humor in these films is built around what pathetic creatures they are. In "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," Jason Segel, who is fat and prematurely saggy, is shown fully naked. The nakedness highlights his humiliation when his girlfriend, Sarah Marshall, dumps him. These films all use the F word over and over in a manner that feels desperate and limited.

There is one very sly, very funny reference to the f word in "The Odd Couple." Oscar complains to Felix Unger that he is tired of getting little notes from Felix like "We are all out of cornflakes. Signed, FU." Oscar says it took him hours to figure out what "FU" meant. A funny joke. Delivered deliciously. The only time "The Odd Couple" has to refer to the F word to get a laugh.

I've never felt, while watching a Judd Apatow comedy, that I was gaining any insight into the human condition. There are so many payoff moments of absurd comedy in "The Odd Couple," as when Oscar steps on a vacuum cleaner cord and then takes his foot off the cord at just the right moment to send Felix reeling. But there were so many moments that made me say, "Gosh, yes, that's what human relationships are like. That's what it's like to love/hate another human being."

I can't imagine a film like "The Odd Couple" being made today. A genuinely funny, intelligent, rich, grownup comedy about men that shines light on the human condition and that need never speak the F word to get a laugh. And I can't imagine anyone other than a Trump being able to afford that eight-room apartment in Manhattan.

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