**/**** Image C+ Sound B
starring Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Ron Rich, Judi West
screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond
directed by Billy Wilder
by Bill Chambers The Fortune Cookie was an attempt on Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond's part to recapture the glory days of six years previous, when their one-two punch of Some Like It Hot and The Apartment hit pay dirt. (Imagine Steven Spielberg's 1993, with its back-to-back releases of Jurassic Park and Schindler's List, and you'll have some idea of the position that Wilder and Diamond were in following The Apartment's Oscar glory.) More to the point, it was an act of redemption for the roundly lambasted Kiss Me, Stupid, and like most movie art seeking atonement from the masses, it so slavishly recapitulates a past success that audiences still aren't getting what they want, only what they've had. A homoerotic redux of The Apartment, with Jack Lemmon reassuming the role of the weak-willed schlub and a black man filling in for Shirley MacLaine (although these character ascriptions prove interchangeable), The Fortune Cookie does nothing so well as make you wish you were watching The Apartment instead.
Lemmon plays Harry Hinkle (an alliterative name like his Apartment designation "Bud" Baxter), a CBS cameraman knocked unconscious on the football field by Cleveland Brown "Boom Boom" Jackson (Ron Rich). Regaining consciousness in a Catholic hospital, Hinkle finds out he has suffered a mild concussion, but brother-in-law Willie Gingrich (Walter Matthau, who won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his droll but unspectacular turn here, possibly to honour the heart attack he survived halfway through the shoot), an ambulance-chasing lawyer called "Whiplash" behind his back, persuades Hinkle, by promising a reunion with Hinkle's much-missed ex-wife (Judi West), to exaggerate the severity of the injuries sustained for the sake of bilking the insurance company. As in The Apartment, we're trapped in Lemmon's shabby digs for the majority of the piece, only this time, it's he who's nursed back to "health" by the MacLaine surrogate: Boom Boom is so wracked with guilt that he enslaves himself to the falsely wheelchair-bound Hinkle. Wilder biographer Cameron Crowe's observation that "race is not an issue" in The Fortune Cookie is deluded even for the director of Almost Famous; what does a film made during the peak of the civil rights movement in which an affluent African-American male instinctively yokes himself to a white master (and Hinkle soaks up every bit of the attention) walk if not a political tightrope?
Then again, their relationship is less offensive than stale, a set-up for object lessons in scruples. And it ultimately doesn't resonate like The Apartment's central pairing because Hinkle and Boom Boom aren't kindred spirits à la C.C. Baxter and Fran Kubelik--you don't want Boom Boom to tell Hinkle to "shut up and deal," you just want both of them to shut up. (Boom Boom's too saintly for words, anyway.) Nevertheless, no Wilder film is meritless: "The Snake Pit" segment of The Fortune Cookie sees a vicious German scientist telling an apocryphal story about outmoded claims-investigation tactics that captures some of the magic of the hilarious anecdotes the Austrian Wilder used to share at awards shows; Andre Previn's score finds a catchy, Mancini-esque bounce; and the cinematography, by Joseph La Shelle in his fourth and final collaboration with Wilder, is light years more eye-catching than that of any modern comedy. Alas, it still feels like a movie that could've been made by any half-funny director in the '60s, and it really overstays its welcome.
MGM drops the "Vintage Classics" banner for their DVD reissue of The Fortune Cookie, available individually or as part of the "Billy Wilder Collection". The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is not going to blow anybody's socks off, but one becomes accustomed to the bleariness and shimmer artifacts of the black-and-white image. Still, this is one of the lesser digital remasters in the box set, at once dupey and oversharpened as if to compensate. Better is the Dolby 2.0 mono sound--it's abundantly clear and hiss-free. The sole extra is the original theatrical trailer. Originally published: July 30, 2003.