It's no "Odd Couple."
Still, considering that Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau made ten or eleven films together, this 1993 pairing of the two actors late in their careers was one of their most popular. "Grumpy Old Men" remains amusing, and endearing, too, thanks not only to the stars but in no small measure to the contributions of real old-timer Burgess Meredith. While the movie would not have been among my current top choices for a Blu-ray high-definition transfer, I'm hardly complaining since it came out looking so good.
In "Grumpy Old Men" Lemmon plays a widower, retired high-school history teacher John Gustafson, and Matthau plays another widower, retired TV repairman Max Goldman. They are both in their late sixties and early seventies and have known each other all their lives. Now, they live next door to one another in the little Minnesota town of Wabasha. And they hate each other. They've been quarreling, fighting, playing practical jokes, and calling one other names for over fifty years, ever since a squabble over a woman. Their only common interest is ice fishing, which they do in separate cabins on a frozen lake. It's their stormy relationship that's at the heart of the story, and the two actors are so good at what they do, having performed together so often, it's a pleasure to watch and listen to them interact.
If the screenwriter, Mark Steven Johnson ("Daredevil," "Ghost Rider"), and the director, Donald Petrie ("Miss Congeniality," "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Day") could have just kept the two main characters bickering, it might have improved the movie. However, you can't really have a story without a plot, and that's where the movie suffers. There isn't much plot, and what plot there is is so thin, we might have been better off just listening to the two actors squabble for two hours. Instead, we get a bundle of half-developed characters and half-baked ideas.
The best of the peripheral characters is Pop Gustafson (Burgess Meredith), John's randy, ninety-four-year-old father, who gets some of the film's best lines, thanks to his lecherous temperament. However, he isn't in the picture for more than a few minutes. Then, there's the comely widow, Ariel Truax (Ann-Margret), who moves in across the street from John and Max. She's a free-spirited college teacher, outgoing, vivacious, and not a little pushy. John and Max immediately set out as rivals to court her. However, we can see the outcome of this competition a mile in advance. Next, there's the business of John losing his house over some unpaid taxes to the IRS; however, that, too, barely gets off the ground before we foresee its outcome.
And there are Daryl Hannah as Melanie, John's daughter, who's going through a separation from her husband; Kevin Pollak as Jacob, Max's bachelor son, who's running for town mayor and who has always had a crush on Melanie; Ossie David as Chuck, the owner of a local bait shop and lunch counter; and Buck Henry as Mr. Snyder, the coldhearted IRS agent intent on putting a lien on John's house. However, like most everyone else, these characters and their situations get little actual screen time.
Lemmon and Matthau were always serious dramatic actors as well as comic actors, and the movie displays their diverse talents well, with Lemmon getting the juicier dramatic moments. Nevertheless, it's hard for even these two seasoned pros to carry a picture that has so little substance to it. Needless to say, everything gets resolved in the story's final few minutes, leading one to question why the dilemmas seemed so important in the first place.
Besides the work of Lemmon and Matthau, "Grumpy Old Men" boasts an appealing musical score by Alan Silvestri, reminiscent of the one by Neal Hefti for "The Odd Couple," and a very funny set of outtakes during the closing credits. Indeed, the outtakes made me laugh more than anything in the actual movie.
As we might have expected with a fairly short movie and practically no extras, WB easily accommodate it in on a single-layer BD25, using VC-1 encoding to reproduce the movie's 1.85:1 aspect ratio. It does the trick. Black levels are very deep, and the whites of snow glisten. The high definition is sharp, and colors remain generally true, although the overall appearance of things is on the dark side. There is a hint of normal print grain to provide texture and a welcome amount of detailing in every object on screen. In all, it's an excellent Blu-ray transfer.
The disc offers the choice of Dolby TrueHD 2.0 or Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. I was a little surprised that the disc provided no 5.1, but discreet 5.1 was in its infancy in 1993, and Warners probably felt the cost of remixing it in 5.1 today was prohibitive. The 2.0 exhibits no surround activity of its own, meaning that your receiver (depending on its settings) will have to simulate a rear-channel signal (in Pro Logic IIx, "Movie," it sounds fines); what's more, there are limited bass and dynamic responses. Its strong suit, though, is a smooth, warm, and entirely natural midrange, which is what the soundtrack is all about, anyway, so it does exactly what it needs to do.
There is not much available in the way of extras on the disc. You get a theatrical trailer in standard definition, and that's about it. I think WB missed a bet in not providing a trailer for the movie's sequel, "Grumpier Old Men," too, but what do I know. There are thirty-three scene selections; pop-up menus; English as the only spoken language; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. Nothing more.
"Grumpy Old Men" is sort of a one-note picture, but luckily that one note is often pretty humorous. Now, if only it didn't have to impose a plot on the two main characters' relationship, it might have been even more persuasive.
Although Lemmon and Matthau made several more films before they died, including "Grumpier Old Men" (1995) and "The Odd Couple II" (1998), "Grumpy Old Men" was the best of their late work. It would win few awards but many a fan. Whether we really needed it in high definition is debatable, but it's certainly nice to have it in any case.