Out of Towners, The (1970)

Out of Towners, The (1970)

“A lot of people are going to pay for this night!”

While travelling to New York so he can interview for an important job the next day, a sales executive (Jack Lemmon) and his wife (Sandy Dennis) find their trip from Ohio ruined by various delays, and soon are sleeping overnight in Central Park.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Black Comedy
  • Jack Lemmon Films
  • Living Nightmare
  • Neil Simon Films
  • New York City
  • Sandy Dennis Films

Neil Simon wrote the original screenplay for this darkly absurdist comedy set in New York City, where anything that can go wrong will. Anybody who’s experienced travel challenges will surely relate to the travails of this naive midwestern couple, who quickly descend into a living nightmare that is nonetheless all too plausible.

Most of the supporting characters they meet aren’t monstrous caricatures or criminals, but simply travel and hospitality employees trying to do the right thing; however, they’re each met with rude indignation from Lemmon, who shows his self-righteous nature from the very beginning. He harasses a stewardess (Ann Prentiss) for not being willing to make him coffee once they’ve started their landing pattern:

… chews out a baggage handler who can’t find their luggage:

… mistreats a customer service agent at the airport:

… and insists on exact change from a taxi driver who doesn’t have any.

After the couple land in Boston and finally make their way by train to NYC, they learn their room has been given to someone else — but rather than accept a reasonable offer to wait safely at the hotel until a different room is available, Lemmon subjects himself and his wife to increasingly risky maneuvers across the city.

The events they endure are meant to be farcical, of course, and it’s easy enough to get caught up in the Kafka-esque narrative — but we also keep wishing entitled Lemmon would calm down already, take a breath, and recognize how foolhardy he sounds when he proclaims, “I can’t let everyone push me around forever; it’s gotta stop sometime!” Meanwhile, Dennis is a perfect foil for neurotic Lemmon:

… showing exactly how to stay calm, get resourceful, and roll with the punches as needed; it’s too bad the final sequence doesn’t afford her some much-deserved comfort.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Sandy Dennis as Gwen Kellerman
  • Jack Lemmon as George Kellerman
  • Excellent use of authentic NYC locales

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended.


10 thoughts on “Out of Towners, The (1970)

  1. Rewatch 12/10/20. Not must-see.

    Weak Neil Simon script has one ‘joke’: New York City is a terrible place, where only bad things ever happen to you. I’m not sure why Simon would design an entire script around a built-in (often unfounded) prejudice that many small-town types have against NYC. I lived there for a total of over 10 years and rarely encountered the kinds of things Simon piles up. Yes, bad things happen – but it seems pointless to devise a weird kind of black comedy devoted to them (esp. when all of those things would not happen to one couple in one short period of time).

    Dennis gets one joke: she repeatedly says ‘Oh… my… God…”.

  2. I didn’t see it as particularly an attack on NYC, so much as an example of how badly a naive and entitled person will fare in a big city if they don’t bother to pay attention to the details and plan ahead for travel.

    It’s Lemmon’s fault through-and-through that they end up in their situation; to me, the lesson is that if he’d treated the people around him (employees) with basic courtesy and patience, and used a little more common sense, he would have been rewarded with a reasonable resolution.

  3. To get specific (spoilers ahead):

    * Lemmon is upset that their plane will land late — fair enough (though this is also super common), but it makes matters worse that he and his wife are hungry and tired after he refuses to allow them to eat dinner or drink coffee on the plane when it’s offered, then gets upset at a stewardess for not being willing to break the rules for them (i.e., to turn the coffee maker back on during landing).
    * Lemmon is upset that their luggage is lost — again, fair enough (this is super annoying), but it would have been taken care of and their bags sent safely to them in time if they’d just relaxed and let the airline manage the situation (which they routinely do).
    * Lemmon is angry at the hotel clerk that his room wasn’t saved. Rather than looking around him and recognizing what a pickle so many people are in (there just isn’t enough space), he chooses to fixate on what he considers to be a “dumb policy” that you need to call ahead to request that your room reservation be extended (which a colleague he meets later in the film calmly mentions he did, without problem).
    * Rather than wait in a comfortable space in the hotel until a room is ready, Lemmon drags his wife after a stranger offering a “room” and shows himself to be the naive and gullible sap he is. (Here is the first case where being naive in NYC — rather than irritated and impatient, though he’s still those — seems to really cause problems.)
    * Lemmon INSISTS on getting change back from a taxi driver when this isn’t possible; you could argue he’s worried about reserving the last change he has, but that doesn’t hold water because he’s asking for the money to be sent back to his house in Ohio. Let go of it, dude!
    * Lemmon gets upset at his wife for giving his watch to a creepy man standing over them at the park, rather than thanking her for her quick thinking in keeping them safe (they were otherwise unharmed).
    * Lemmon gets mad at Dennis for stopping to comfort a lost boy in the park, rather than tapping into his basic humanity (does he have any?) and realizing that they can all get support from a police officer together.

    Etc. This entire fiasco shows how dumb it is to respond to the world through a lens of entitlement and panic. I got caught up in the storyline as a nightmarish farce, but see it as just desserts for a clueless man rather than a slap in the face to NYC (which is actually portrayed as rather charitable and reasonable).

  4. So you’re saying that Simon wrote a comedy about the big bad city unaware that he was actually writing a drama about entitlement. That makes sense to me.

  5. Could be… Simon was pretty darn privileged himself, and I’m sure he thought he was simply skewering how bad things could get. According to TCM’s article:

    The inspiration for The Out-of-Towners came from an incident (circa 1967) when Simon flew to Boston to work on David Merrick’s musical How Now Dow Jones. “Flying up there, I was caught in a major snowstorm, lost my luggage, spent three hours getting to the hotel on icy streets, a trip which normally was a ten-minute ride.”

    He seems to have taken that very annoying experience and written an entire story about a man who handles it in the worst way possible.

  6. Simon should have added a line for Lemmon at the height of one of his tirades: “Maybe you don’t understand who I am – I’M NEIL SIMON!!!” 😉

  7. Oh, indeed!!!! 😉 I would add on:


  8. The venerable Leonard Maltin rates it ⭐️1/2 (out of ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️) and says:

    “Excruciating Neil Simon script about stupidly stubborn Lemmon and wife Dennis having everything imaginable go wrong on trip to N.Y.C. More harrowing than funny, with curiously unsympathetic leading characters.”

    He seems to have taken the view they’re stubborn and unsympathetic. Having not ever seen the whole film I can’t personally comment.

  9. Interestingly, I wouldn’t call it “funny” so much as an opportunity for schadenfreude (along with plenty of sympathy for Dennis, who is logical and kind but stuck in a marriage with a whining dimwit).

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