Grumpy Old Men (1993)

It's actually a little weird I've never seen this before. I was in high school when Grumpy Old Men came out in 1993, so the fact I never bothered seeing it on VHS or even caught it on television is a little unusual. Likewise, it has to be one of the most famous Christmas movies that somehow fell through the cracks this long. Part of that has to do with the fact it intentionally downplays some aspects of the holidays - more on that later - despite absolutely qualifying as a Christmas movie.

The movie's primary selling point and presumably its reason for being made is its cast. The film stars Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau as the titular grumpy old men, and if there's a reason to see this, it's them. Whether that's enough or not is a more difficult question. The movie is right on the line between "not quite good enough" and "just good enough." Frustratingly, it contains moments and elements of greatness it can't quite maintain.

Lemmon and Matthau play John and Max, a pair of retired men living across the street from each other who have been feuding for decades after John "stole" Max's girlfriend. The woman who originally came between them was married to John for two decades and has passed on, as has Max's own wife (who he was happily married to for about the same time), but the feud endures. They insult each other, play petty pranks, and generally just demean each other at every turn. Despite this, both like each other's grown kids - John has a daughter who's separated from her husband, and Max has a son running for mayor. Said kids get a "will they/won't they" subplot, but it's never given much screentime (we'll just gloss over the peeping Tom bit from their past, which we're supposed to find endearing).

The main plot concerns a love triangle with a new neighbor, Ariel (played by Ann-Margret), a sort of free-spirited artistic professor both midwestern men view as a symbol of life, youth, and excitement. More accurately, three midwestern elderly men, as Chuck (a bait shop owner played by Ossie Davis) is likewise smitten. He's actually the first of them to spend any real time with Ariel, when he goes on a sort of date at her house. But if there was ever a chance of Chuck and Ariel forming a lasting relationship, it ends when Chuck dies in his sleep.

Max and John separately form relationships with Ariel, though - in her mind, at least - Max is a friend, while John is something more. After they sleep together, Max is enraged at John, and his pranks escalate severely. The two fight, and eventually Max asks how John thinks he'll support Ariel when his house is impounded by the IRS.

Oh, right. Did I forget about that subplot? Eh. Doesn't much matter - it's mostly there for this moment.

That point actually affects John, who breaks it off with Ariel because he decides Max is right about him not being financially secure enough to support a [checks notes] adult woman with a successful career stable enough to own a house of her own.

Sigh. Moving on.

By this point it's Christmas. Ariel is with Max, though the exact nature of their relationship isn't crystal clear - at the very least, he thinks of her as a girlfriend and believes she's chosen him over John. John is feeling pretty low, all the more so because his daughter seems to be getting back together with her husband, who's a horrible human being.

Max's son tells his father to make amends, and Max finds John in a bar. They argue a bit then John reveals that he broke it off with Ariel, so she'd go to Max. At first, Max doesn't believe him, and John storms out alone. Eventually, Max follows and finds him collapsed in the midst of a heart attack. He gets help, saving John's life, and realizes that he actually means a great deal to him.

Max explains everything to Ariel, who goes to see John in the hospital. It's unclear whether he'll survive, and the movie attempts to fake out the audience by cutting to a church and implying there's a funeral. But the framing is so obviously deliberate and the dialogue blatantly ambiguous that I doubt anyone watching was ever fooled: of course John's alive, and we're actually seeing his wedding to Ariel.

Honestly, him dying might have been a better ending. Better still would have been neither ending up with Ariel - it's bizarre she's interested in any of these guys, frankly. More importantly, ending on the wedding undermines the actual story at the heart of this: Grumpy Old Men is a love story between John and Max, not John and Ariel. The sequence where John has a heart attack recognizes this; the conclusion does not.

It's not the only time the movie experiences the same crisis of identity. Throughout, it's confused as to where its focus belongs. John, more than Max, is the POV character - to an extent, it's his movie, chronicling his relationships with both Max and Ariel, with the latter being the central romantic comedy and the former a comedic aside (or was it the other way around?).

But that perspective falls apart when he has a heart attack. For a few minutes, it pivots to following Max as he comes to terms with his feelings towards John and works to save his friend's relationship and house (oh, yeah, forgot to mention that subplot again).

It's trying to be both, and it doesn't quite manage to make it work. Pity: the emotional journey surrounding his heart attack delivered some actual pathos. Matthau sells the moment, and - had they managed to sustain that a few minutes longer - the conclusion to this review would be a lot more generous.

Of course, it's comedy filming the bulk of screentime, and that's hit-or-miss. There are some really funny moments, largely thanks to the cast. But for every gag that lands, another falls flat. A lot of the humor here is rooted in the idea the old men are behaving like kids, a cute premise that relies on the movie coming off as clever rather than juvenile. Unfortunately, the script just isn't consistently clever enough for this to work on the strength of jokes alone.

Then there's the sexism. To be fair, this is less egregious than a lot of '90s comedies, but it's still present. As was typical for the time, it's less a case of blatantly sexist depictions than choices on whose point-of-view is worth exploring, whose emotions are important, and how characters are framed.

Ann-Margret was sixteen years younger than Jack Lemmon, twenty-one years younger than Walter Matthau, and twenty-four years younger than Ossie-Davis: she's quite literally a generation younger than her three potential love interests. For what it's worth, I think Ann-Margret is good in the role (really good, in fact, particularly early on before the script forgets she's supposed to be brilliant and eccentric). But the men are cast and written as characters for viewers to identify with, while her character is there to be desired and/or won.

The movie starts around Thanksgiving, and - excluding the wedding - continues until the day after Christmas. The timeline is notably close to that of The Apartment, Billy Wilder's classic which likewise starred Lemmon, though I doubt that was intentional. The most interesting aspect of the holidays actually might be how they're largely absent or at least relegated to the background. The leads largely don't care much about Christmas: for most of the movie, they're more focused on their feud with each other. But of course, the heart attack occurs on Christmas, and Max seems to undergo a journey of self-discovery as a result.

It actually would have made a little more thematic sense to set that event on New Year's. I suspect if this had been made a few decades earlier, it would have been, but by the '90s Christmas Day had largely swallowed up the significance of the subsequent Christmas holidays. Regardless, it's the moment of reflection and chance for new beginnings aspect of the season that's being employed here.

The other element is, simply put, snow. This serves a couple purposes, representing the bitter cold the leads feel for each other, as well as reflecting the fact they're in the winter of their lives (I have to wonder if The Lion in Winter might have been a source of inspiration). The snow and ice are initially framed to play up the dismal, sparse landscape. It's not shot to look pretty, but dead and frozen. That changes when Ariel enters the picture, however. When John is with her, we're shown picturesque vistas. He feels young again, and the visuals change to match his mood.

All of which is to say there's thought put into this film to compliment some fantastic performances from Lemmon, Matthau, and Ann-Margret. Some of the jokes are great, and the dramatic climax packs a punch - this isn't a bad movie. But it's also not quite a great one: too much of the comedy aims for the lowest common denominator, and the romance - both romances, honestly - are hampered by sexist tropes in which the women are treated as objects by the filmmakers. I can't quite recommend this one, at least not with any sort of enthusiasm. But if you're a fan of any of the three stars, this does give them a chance to shine.