“You don’t understand — I’m nothing without my wife and kids!”
When compulsive neat freak Felix Ungar (Jack Lemmon) is thrown out of his house by his wife, he goes to live with his good friend Oscar Madison (Walter Matthau), who is quickly driven batty by Felix’s incessant housekeeping.
The characters of (neatnik) Felix Ungar and (slob) Oscar Madison have become so culturally iconic that it’s easy to forget just how clever their original big-screen incarnation was. Neil Simon’s screenplay (based upon his own play) plunges us immediately into surprisingly challenging territory, as we witness Felix wandering despondently through the streets of New York, hoping to die; his depression is palpable, and we feel for his situation. From there, we’re shown the true concern expressed by his circle of friends (nicely acted by John Fiedler, Herb Edelman, David Sheiner, and Larry Haines); while their attempts to prevent Felix from committing suicide are played for laughs, they’re consistently bolstered by a refreshing undercurrent of genuine love and concern. The increasingly tense situation that emerges once Felix and Oscar attempt to live with one another is likewise both hilarious and poignant: we can relate to Oscar’s sense that he’s slowly going crazy, yet we simultaneously feel compassion for what is clearly Felix’s (undiagnosed) obsessive-compulsive disorder (or some variation thereof) — and we certainly understand why his wife could no longer live with him!
Lemmon and Matthau are perfectly cast as the title “couple”; their comedic timing and rapport is impeccable. Interestingly, Matthau originally thought he would be better suited as Felix — either given that he was a neatnik in real life (according to a quote in TCM’s article) or because he felt he was too much like Oscar and the role wasn’t enough of a stretch (according to a piece of IMDb trivia); do any readers know the true reason? At any rate, while both performances are excellent, I find Lemmon particularly impressive, given how fearlessly and emphatically he embraces his character’s “feminine” tendencies without devolving into stereotypes of any kind (naturally, one can’t help thinking of his memorably gender-fluid performance in Some Like it Hot). Also of note are Monica Evans and Carole Shelley (who reprised their characters in the long-running T.V. series) in hilarious supporting roles as the sexy British sisters Walter’s hoping to have a good time with, but who are instead distracted by Felix’s sob story.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Jack Lemmon as Felix Unger
- Walter Matthau as Oscar Madison
- Monica Evans and Carole Shelley as Cecily and Gwendolyn Pigeon
- A clever tale of friendship put to the ultimate test
- Neal Hefti’s memorable score
Yes, as a finely written and acted comedy. This one is a “good show” you’ll look forward to revisiting!