If Grumpy Old Men weren’t so scared of its ribald humor—giving almost all of it to dirty oldest man Burgess Meredith, who’s just there to make sex jokes and serves no other purpose in the film—you could probably just as well call it Horny Old Men. At least in Jack Lemmon’s case. He hasn’t gotten horizontal since 1978, which might be when his wife left. Grumpy’s pretty vague with its backstory, maybe because writer Mark Steven Johnson is far more comfortable with Lemmon and nemesis Walter Matthau bickering; or maybe he’s just not good at consistency in the exposition. Given the general ineptness of the narrative, it seems more like the latter.
Because even though the film’s principal cast is entirely AARP eligible, it’s not some empowering story about older adults living full lives; if it weren’t for Ann-Margret moving in across the street and reminding Matthau and Lemmon to perv at her through their windows, they’d be just as happy sitting around alone doing nothing. Sure, Matthau’s got his TV and Lemmon plays chess against himself, but their lives are just waiting for their kids to need them. The kids—Kevin Pollak is Matthau’s son, Daryl Hannah’s Lemmon’s daughter—are the only supporting characters with a full arc. Though… arguably, Lemmon is the only of the the main characters with a complete arc. Once the third act hits, Matthau and Ann-Margret act entirely for Lemmon’s benefit, even as he’s offscreen for a bunch of the finale.
Lemmon’s arc mostly involves him dodging IRS guy Buck Henry—who’s well-utilized and quite amusing in an otherwise bland little extended cameo—because (we learn) he wasn’t paying enough back when his ex-wife was working so he owes a bunch of money and they’re going to take his house. He’s not telling anyone about these problems—and the film isn’t telling the viewer either so it can double-up expository impact when Matthau finds out about it late in the second act—so it’s hard to take the problems seriously. You’re obviously not supposed to take Grumpy Old Men very seriously, from vulgar nonagenarian Meredith to Lemmon and Matthau’s mean-spirited bantering slash full-on slapstick physical comedy; Lemmon’s money problems, despite being the biggest plot (sorry, Ann-Margret), don’t make much impact. Lemmon’s great at fretting but fretting solo can’t compare to he and Matthau going thermonuclear. Especially since Matthau’s got zip to do except go thermonuclear.
Because they’re not really Grumpy Old Men in general, just specifically as it relates to the other. They’ve hated each other since childhood; despite being pals until puberty, the first girl to come between them broke the friendship early, which must have made it awkward when Lemmon then married the girl, had a couple kids—a son died in Vietnam to remind everyone it’s actually kind of serious but in a “this was very serious thirty years ago and not since” way—and was miserable with Matthau’s dream girl. Matthau meanwhile married a good woman—the way they talk about Lemmon’s ex-wife is… problematic. Though the script’s often problematic with its female characters. The boys initially suspect Ann-Margret is a free-love type, for example, and it’s impossible to fault them because her writing is so bad for most of the first act. She’s supposed to be a passionate literature professor living her best life as a widow, which involves snowmobiling a lot. And a sauna so they can show fifty-two year-old Ann-Margret can still cheesecake.
It’s also unclear why Ann-Margret’s only three options, dating-wise, are Lemmon (sixty-eight), Matthau (seventy-three), and Ossie Davis (seventy-six). Especially since she’s not just drawing stares from the oldest guys. Of course, the film’s not really interested in fleshing out the setting. Besides Lemmon, Matthau, Ann-Margrets’s homes, the frozen lake where the men all icefish because it’s Minnesota (Davis runs the bait shop and lunch counter), a bar, and a pharmacy, Grumpy Old Men doesn’t go anywhere.
The best performance is probably Matthau, just because he doesn’t get too much to do, whereas the script fails both Lemmon and Ann-Margret (mostly her). Davis is cute, Pollak is good, Hannah’s fine. Technically it’s competent. Petrie does fine showcasing the physical comedy and the banter. Johnny E. Jensen’s photography is better than it needs to be. The Alan Silvestri super-saccharine score is a tad much though.
Grumpy Old Men has got some solid laughs and not much else.
Oh, and listen fast for John Carroll Lynch.
Directed by Donald Petrie; written by Mark Steven Johnson; director of photography, Johnny E. Jensen; edited by Bonnie Koehler; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, David Chapman; costume designer, Lisa Jensen; produced by John Davis and Richard C. Berman; released by Warner Bros.
Starring Jack Lemmon (John Gustafson), Walter Matthau (Max Goldman), Ann-Margret (Ariel Truax), Daryl Hannah (Melanie), Kevin Pollak (Jacob Goldman), Ossie Davis (Chuck), Buck Henry (Snyder), Christopher McDonald (Mike), and Burgess Meredith (Grandpa Gustafson).