Friday, August 1, 2008

The Out of Towners (1970)

70s American Cinema is widely acknowledged as a new golden age of cinema. But when you think of that era, rarely do you think of comedies. The dark explorations of Friedkin, the complex character studies of Altman, and the desperate visions of Peckinpah come to mind. By the mid 60s most comedies seemed bloated and trivial. Nothing against It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, but the comedy well was running dry. Many of the stars of the 50s had trouble transitioning into the new youth culture zeitgeist and this was often painful to watch in comedies of the time. But throughout the 60s and into the 70s, Jack Lemmon was starring in some fantastic pictures. The Apartment, The Odd Couple, and though not a comedy, The Days of Wine and Roses showcased Lemmon’s amazing acting abilities. Perhaps, one of his finest films comes at the dawn of the decade. Directed by Arthur Hiller (The In-Laws, Silver Streak, Love Story) and penned by Neil Simon, The Out of Towners is an absolute comedy classic. The patter is fast, the acting superb and Lemmon’s manic energy is the piston that drives this picture. Lemmon plays a businessman from suburban Ohio. He’s been all but guaranteed a promotion and a move to the Big Apple. All he has to do to land the job is fly to NYC for a perfunctory interview and the job is his. But as luck would have it, everything goes wrong for him and his wife, expertly played by Sandy Dennis. At his core, Lemmon is a worried and nervous nebbish, but he masks his insecurity expertly with a fa├žade of brassy and brash bravado. Dennis is the perfect foil, playing it straight, forever supportive, yet becoming increasingly exasperated as each new nightmare plays outs. Humiliation after humiliation pile up for the pair. Delayed flights, crammed trains, transportation strikes, garbage strikes, filled hotels, multiple muggings, run-ins with the law, exploding sewer grates, broken teeth, and on and on.

What’s interesting from today’s perspective is how the film seems to be a major touchstone for the work of Larry David. Though nowhere near as acerbic as Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Out of Towners offers up an early dose of agitated comedy. Unlike Larry David, Lemmon is often a victim of circumstance, but much like Larry, Lemmon’s pigheadedness and intractability constantly make things worse for him and his wife. Just when things can’t get any worse, Lemmon makes sure they do. And like Larry, everybody irks Lemmon. One of the film’s great running gags is that Lemmon is keeping a list of everyone he’s going to sue when he gets back to Ohio. The list is kept on an envelope that is getting increasingly distressed and tattered as the film progresses. They’ve lost all their money, their shoes, a front tooth, but Lemmon is holding onto that list for dear life. No question, Jason Alexander studied this film big time in prepping for the George Costanza role on Seinfeld.

And finally, though it’s pure comedy the film does have a hint of the gritty, NYC 1970s vibe. New York is cold and inhospitable, the garbage is piling up, the muggers are out in force, and a new headache lurks around every corner. But it’s damn funny.

Check out this link to a great clip.

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