**/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras C
starring Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, John Fiedler, Herb Edelman
screenplay by Neil Simon, based on his play
directed by Gene Saks
by Alex Jackson My high-school psychology teacher used The Odd Couple's Oscar and Felix as an example of two men who had never resolved the anal stage of Sigmund Freud's model for psychosexual development. Oscar (Walter Matthau) is anal expulsive, rebelling against toilet-training well into adulthood, wallowing in his own filth and living completely in the moment. Felix (Jack Lemmon) is anal-retentive, finding pleasure in withholding his feces as a child, and as an adult obsessively cleaning and re-cleaning his surroundings and living by a strictly-controlled schedule. Indeed, playwright Neil Simon's The Odd Couple seems custom-built to illustrate the anal-stage concept in Freudian psychosexual development. In a broader sense, The Odd Couple is also an overt embodiment of the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy: Felix represents the need to create order, whereas Oscar represents the need to maintain a natural chaotic state.
The film is unbalanced--towards Felix, I think. The Odd Couple does virtually nothing to challenge my initial hypothesis that this was the sort of risk-hedging middlebrow crap the studios were cranking out in the late-Sixties before the advent of New Hollywood. You know, the film came out in 1968, the same year as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Night of the Living Dead and only twelve months prior to the releases of Easy Rider and the X-rated Midnight Cowboy, the latter of which would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. It's baffling that this film could co-exist with those titles, and in context it feels about ten years out-of-date. Director Gene Saks doesn't even do much to liberate the material from its stage origins and turn it into cinema. The 'scope photography by TV veteran Robert B. Hauser has a certain class and warmth to it, yet it keeps us at a distance; we often get the feeling that the picture was filmed in front of a live audience, sitcom-style. It's an expensive, well-done performance of the play, Broadway in a form conveniently transported to Clarksville, Indiana.
Perhaps the problem with the film can be centralized in the first scene with Oscar. He is hosting a poker game for his friends on a hot summer night and both his air conditioner and refrigerator are on the fritz. Everybody is complaining about the smell. Oscar prepares some sandwiches and gives his guests a choice of "brown" or "green." First of all, this is precisely the type of joke that plays well in the relatively minimalist medium of the theatre--but with the literalism of cinema, we get to expecting Gummo levels of squalor. If Oscar's apartment is genuinely filled with the smell of decaying food, that is disgusting to the point of horrifying. If it's intended as comic exaggeration, we feel vaguely condescended to.
I had this identical complaint a number of times throughout The Odd Couple, notably when Oscar invites two British sisters to their apartment for dinner. They giggle and flirt with the two men and Oscar, having primed them for a fun evening, leaves the room to fix cocktails. Felix starts talking to them about his wife, whom he has recently divorced, and his kids. By the time Oscar returns, the two women are no longer happy and giddy but instead crying and depressed. My expectation, of course, was that the sisters would be creeped-out by Felix. This is hardly a welcome change, however. It's a reminder that the two sisters are not flesh-and-blood human beings interacting with other flesh-and-blood human beings of their own volition, but a playwright's device to comically illustrate the growing friction between the divergent personalities of Oscar and Felix. Again I believe that while this particular strain of abstraction translates fine on the stage, on film it's deadly.
Getting back to that first scene with Oscar and the sandwiches... This is very much an establishment view of anti-establishmentarianism. Green sandwiches at a poker game? How wild and crazy! If Oscar embodies Dionysian chaos, he does so in the least threatening way possible. Not only is he hosting a poker game at the beginning of the film, he also makes his living as a sportswriter. Sensual pleasures in The Odd Couple are channelled into traditional, socially-acceptable, male-oriented venues. We know there's something wrong with Felix when he walks into a go-go bar and regards the dancer with a mix of boredom and embarrassment. He's a square, but a square within a rigidly conventional patriarchy. Again, we can't help but reflect that The Odd Couple was just a year or so before Woodstock, and two years before the release of Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell's not-entirely-dissimilar but far superior Performance. When it comes down to it, Oscar isn't the kind of guy who is going to shake up the status quo. Indeed, there is a laboured irony to the idea that it is Felix who disrupts his carefully-cultivated equilibrium by moving in.
Still, I found Oscar quite endearing, and this is probably attributable to the film's aversion to risk and the fact that the plot puts him on the defensive from the get-go. This unthreatening establishment view of anti-establishmentarianism reduces his messiness to an idiosyncrasy. There is a welcome touch of Jewish maternalism in his dialogue during the sandwich scene. One of the boys complains about a co-player fiddling with all the chips he has won. Oscar comes into the room and says, "This is my house. You wanna play with your chips, you play with them, darling." When he's making the sandwiches and they ask him if he's in or out, he shouts, "Out, pussycat! Out!" Sweetheart? Pussycat? How could you possibly dislike the big lug?
In contrast, I despised Felix. At the beginning of the film, he is finalizing his divorce and plots to kill himself by jumping out a hotel window. He throws his back out though and doesn't go through with it. Felix then goes to Oscar's poker game and, concerned for his safety and knowing he doesn't have anywhere else to go, Oscar invites him to stay. Of course they drive each other crazy and Oscar winds up kicking him out. As he leaves, Felix warns him, "What happens to me is your responsibility. Let it be on your head." This use of suicide or suicidal attempts to passive-aggressively manipulate people isn't uncommon among troubled adolescents. (I work as a mental-health worker in a lock-down facility for adolescent sex offenders, and as luck would have it, we had one such attempt for precisely that reason the week I watched The Odd Couple.) For a man Felix's age, on the other hand, it's more repulsive than alarming. He clearly has yet to outgrow the asshole tendencies he had as a 15-year-old. It's possible that the more we find Oscar endearing, the more we grow to hate Felix. His whole act depends on Oscar being a warm, kind, caring person. Felix is exploiting him. He's an emotional vampire who befriends good people, then uses their goodness against them to gain power and control, since his mission in life is to have control over everything.
Felix explains that he understands precisely why his wife left him. He always re-cooked her meals and cleaned up after her, because he knew he was the better cook and housekeeper. This is cringe-inducing; I can't bear to imagine what it would be like to be married to this man. Oscar's sandwiches may be inedible, but they're made with love. That's why he opted out of that hand: he was making sandwiches for his "pussycats" and "darlings." Conversely, Felix's gourmet meals are always all about him, about how he is underappreciated, or indispensable.
There's been a lot of talk recently about Judd Apatow founding a "new" sub-genre of romantic-comedy, the "bromance." I think The Odd Couple deserves genuine praise for getting the "bromance" right in 1968. The film underlines the ways Oscar and Felix's relationship resembles a marriage, but it never becomes a homophobic joke. The gag is more that they are both divorced and have happened into an ersatz marriage than it is, "Yo, we're both dudes." The "feminine" aspects of Oscar and Felix are brought to the fore and, in a way, celebrated--we're never invited to cop a superior stance and laugh at a couple of fags. But the film goes farther than that in taking a hard look at the dynamics of power and affection present in a long-term monogamous relationship.
In the end, alas, the film seems rather oblivious as to how messed-up Felix truly is. The closing scene sees Oscar telling his guests not to throw their cigarette butts on his floor. After all, this isn't a pigsty, this is his home. What are they trying to tell us? That Felix has changed Oscar for the better? That Oscar now considers his possessions a point of pride? At best, it appears that Oscar is adopting one or two of Felix's obsessive tendencies to maintain a sentimental attachment to his departing roommate. He's still that same old sweet guy. In actuality, this ending simply shows us that the filmmakers view Felix's cleanliness and Oscar's messiness as harmless and not symptomatic of larger problems. It's the by-product of a characteristically Apollonian film that sources its sense of humanity exclusively in its Dionysian elements.
Paramount's 2-disc Centennial Collection reissue of The Odd Couple leaves something to be desired, starting with the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of the movie proper. It's strong enough to convey the illusion that you're being treated to something special (that whole Broadway-at-Clarksville idea), but the colours are on the drab side, betraying the film's age despite an overall lack of grain (so conspicuous it may well point to DVNR) and print damage. The audio is in remixed Dolby Digital 5.1, and the discrete soundstage is so underutilized that you're not sure why they didn't just remaster the native mono mix. Strangely, mono tracks are available, but for the French and Spanish dubs only.
Meanwhile, Charles Matthau and Chris Lemmon--that's right, the sons of Walter and Jack--team up for a feature-length commentary, the two men doing their best to make this horribly tacky idea work, coming off as close facsimiles of their respective fathers in the process. This is particularly true of Matthau, who does a fine vocal impersonation of his father and repeats several of his dad's favourite jokes and anecdotes, including one where Papa Matthau claimed to have accidentally lost his virginity after wandering into a brothel he thought was a sandwich shop. (That's funny.) Matthau and Lemmon are, respectively, a veteran director (The Grass Harp and Doin' Time on Planet Earth) and actor (Wishmaster and the Thunder in Paradise series--I promise you I'm not trying to be minimizing), and apparently this is meant to give their comments additional credence. Nonetheless, they never persuade that their love for The Odd Couple is anything other than irrationally sentimental. Though I have yet to see a Charles Matthau film, his heavy praise for Gene Saks's routine direction suggests that his ideas as to what cinema is and should be are at great odds to my own.
Additional extras consist mainly of an hour-long documentary chopped into five parts so as to create the illusion that the bonus DVD is more densely-supplemented than it is. Not that I wanted more of The Odd Couple and, more to the point, not that it's actually possible to say anything more about The Odd Couple, but come on, man--that's some sleazy, snake-oil salesman shit. In fact, everything found on this second disc would fit onto the first without much cost to quality.
"In the Beginning..." (17 mins.) cursorily notes that the play was inspired by a visit Neil Simon paid to his brother and his brother's mismatched roommate before showing us stills from the original stage production starring Matthau and, as Felix, Art Carney. Fans like Larry King and Brad Garrett (who played Oscar in a 2005 Broadway revival) relate their first experiences with the piece. Matthau's total disregard for money and cheerful gambling addiction is addressed at length. His son theorizes it was to get back at his painfully frugal mother, bringing to mind the Freudian analysis of the Oscar character as anal expulsive. "Inside The Odd Couple" (19 mins.) discusses the film's production. We learn that Lemmon replaced Carney because the latter was an established box-office draw and Matthau was not established enough to carry the film on his own. The segment closes with the various interviewees identifying their favourite scenes from the play and film. "Memories from the Set" (10 mins.) is mostly focused on the 88-year-old Saks taking stock of the film's deviations from the source material and, curiously, the bodily injuries suffered on-screen and off. Matthau had hurt his arm in a bicycling accident and so they had to shoot the second act first, as it didn't require Matthau to use his arm as much. We're also told that Felix's scream of "My bursitis!" upon throwing a cup at the wall was likely improvised by Lemmon.
We hear more from the sons of "the odd couple" in "Matthau & Lemmon" (11 mins.). Slivers of discontent towards their famous fathers manage to seep out--especially from Lemmon, who talks about being a son of divorce and having his oftentimes-absentee father bring him gifts out of guilt and getting hero-worshipped as a result. Matthau claims that his father would have preferred he become a doctor rather than a film director, saying that his opinion on abortion was that it's a fetus until it graduates medical school. (That's even funnier than the brothel story.) But, of course, relations for each father-son pair improved with age. Finally, "The Odd Couple: A Classic" (3 mins.) tells us that when they made The Odd Couple, they knew it was going to be a box-office hit. Rounding out the platter are photo galleries and The Odd Couple's theatrical trailer. Originally published: September 18, 2009.
105 minutes; G; 2.35:1 (16x9-enhanced); English DD 5.1, French DD 2.0 (Mono), Spanish DD 2.0 (Mono); CC; English, French, Spanish subtitles; DVD-9 + DVD-5; Region One; Paramount