The wintry old-coot movie Grumpy Old Men skates on very thin plot. The very opposite of sophisticated, it relies on cuteness and sentimentality to get by, and in these respects, it compares badly to the crackling comedy of yore. And yet, Grumpy Old Men is irresistible, a guilty pleasure that had most audiences saying, "If watching this movie is bad, I don't want to be good." The picture's not-remotely-secret weapons: Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, nostalgically paired for the sixth time on screen. A surprise hit, Grumpy Old Men led to four more films starring Lemmon and Matthau, including the sequel Grumpier Old Men.
In snowy Wabasha, Minnesota live two lifelong bickering, competitive friends who refuse to acknowledge they like each other: retired history teacher John Gustafson (Lemmon) and retired TV repairman Max Goldman (Matthau). Neighbors accustomed to insulting each other ("Morning, dickhead." "Hello, moron."), the pair spend their days ice-fishing and hoping for the best for their kids. When vivacious Ariel Truax (Ann-Margret) moves in across the street, John and Max become romantic rivals. As John's daughter Melanie (Daryl Hannah) and Max's son Jacob (Kevin Pollak) ineffectually referee, they rekindle long-dormant feelings.
There's your plot, which screenwriter Mark Steven Johnson doesn't exploit with anything approaching realism or intricacy. But as a latter-day vehicle for Lemmon and Matthau, it gets the job done, allowing the jabbering Lemmon and jowly Matthau to turn on the charm. The prime hams and real-life friends share comic timing that can only come from years of experience, and the old "odd couple" dynamic of high-strung Lemmon and laconic Matthau never lost its appeal. Every scene they share here is gold, though the one in which they lose their place in the middle of an argument is particularly memorable (Lemmon also gets a chance to plink out a tune--one of his own--on the piano).
Johnson and director Donald Petrie cannily orchestrate a soft-hearted story that appeals to an older crowd, but one that also has its fair share of naughtiness. The Rockwellian setting and dramatic references to the spectre of mortality are countered by an essential optimism and small doses of calculated contemporary crudeness: a getting-ready-for-a-date montage to Right Said Fred's "I'm Too Sexy" and Matthau wrapping his lips around not only Max's catch phrase ("Holy moly") but Bart Simpson's ("Eat my shorts"). The notion that naughty old people are especially funny is further tested (and proven) by the character of John's foul-mouthed father, played with gusto by 85-year-old legend Burgess Meredith.
Petrie directs with a smooth hand, and incorporates a couple of pulse-quickening moments that don't involve Ann-Margret: Max's reckless driving and a brief action sequence involving the town's ice-fishing shanties. Ann-Margret proves perfectly magnetic, and Ossie Davis is always welcome, despite his almost insultingly thankless role as a shop owner who's a mutual friend of John and Max. As entertaining and probably more so than anything in the film is the gag reel Petrie places under the end credits, with the stars clearly having a great time (and Meredith playing Line-O-Rama with sexual euphemisms).
In its Blu-ray debut, Grumpy Old Men makes news. This is one of those rare popular catalog titles that has never yet been issued in its original aspect ratio, a crime rectified by the BD's pleasing 1.85:1 transfer. At first, the image is distressingly shaky, appearing to be marred by telecine wobble. Turns out the wobble is a source defect--the side effect of old optical titles--and it promptly disappears when the credits end. What remains transported me back to 1993: the film-like transfer captures the picture's original look with no serious distractions; shadows crush background detail a bit, but generally the image offers pleasantly surprising dimensionality. Without doubt, this is worlds better than the travesty offered on DVD for years. The Dolby TrueHD 2.0 track won't be knocking anyone out (not even senior citizens), but it's certainly clear and balanced enough to serve the material.
Sadly, no substantial bonus features are included (not even an EPK?), but thankfully we do at least get the film's memorable "Theatrical Trailer" (1:52, SD).
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