"Now it's garbage."
Interestingly enough, when one mentions The Odd Couple, the first thing that comes to the mind of most people is the admittedly amusing 1970s television series starring Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. And while this is not meant as a swipe against that show, it is a shame that it gets more attention than the original play by Neil Simon, which inspired this absolutely classic late 1960s motion picture comedy, featuring one of the finest comedy teams to ever appear on screen.
Simply put, The Odd Couple is Neil Simon's funniest and most brilliantly written play. And that's saying quite a bit when talking about one of the greatest humorists and playwrights of the 20th century. Simon is somewhat underrated, as comedy tends to be overshadowed by drama, particularly on the stage. But make no mistake about it, The Odd Couple is a fine piece of writing, filled with witty lines, unforgettable characters and absolutely iconic scenes. It is the kind of comedy that approaches perfection, and that's why it makes this list.
Whoever first thought of putting Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon on screen together deserves some kind of award. Coming along as they did, a bit after the golden age of movie comedy teams, they don't always get the credit they deserve. But they brought a unique chemistry whenever they were together, and it's no wonder they did appear in so many films alongside each other. However, this one if the epitome of them all.
Lemmon's Felix Ungar and Matthau's Oscar Madison are so fully realized and play off each other so well, and it's truly a pleasure to behold as they interact with each other. Matthau and Lemmon really brought out the best in each other, not to mention struck the perfect balance of combativeness and actual warm friendship. In spite of all their issues, we know that Oscar and Felix are true friends, and this is as much due to the performances as it is to Simon's writing.
What's also interesting about this film is that it does not quite give us the happy, pat ending we expect from a film like this. Rather, it challenges us, ending on a note that rings truer with regards to the actual nature of friendship and human relationships than what we might expect given the light-hearted nature of the material. It's in moments like these that it's easy to grasp the vast difference in quality between a film like this, and the safer, more broadly comical TV series it inspired.
As if Lemmon and Matthau aren't enough, you have one hell of a supporting cast letting it all hang out here. Veteran character actors John Fiedler and Herb Edelman are excellent as Vinnie and the ubiquitous Murray the Cop. And of course, then we have the hilarious Pigeon sisters, played by Monica Evans and Carole Shelley. Politically correct they are not, but god damn are they funny.
It's very east to underrate The Odd Couple, or to dismiss it as a simply comedy. Usually the people that do this have not seen it in a while, or perhaps never at all. This is more than just a silly gimmick about a neat guy trying to live with a sloppy guy. It's more than just a very catchy theme song. It's actually a challenging movie about friendship, particularly two friends helping each other through the pain of separation and divorce.
And yet it's also laugh-out-loud, hysterically funny. Whether it's Felix' classic "sinus-clearing" scene in the restaurant, or the infamous spaghetti argument, this is timeless stuff--and much of the humor arises out of situations that are realistic and even stressful. This is a comedy that is not afraid to get a bit heavy--after all, one of its protagonists is literally on the verge of suicide. And yet, like some of the greatest of comedies, it uses this tragedy to create something that appeals on several levels.
This, in a nutshell, is what makes The Odd Couple work so well. So if you only know Neil Simon's play from the ever-popular TV series, do yourself a favor and check out the movie. You'll be very pleasantly surprised at what you find. Neil Simon was a true commenter on the human condition--and The Odd Couple is his greatest comment.
NEXT UP: Once Upon a Time in the West (1969)