Read more from Slate's Geezers Issue.
Lesser old-buddy films like Tough Guys enact a strange contradiction: By their very existence, they challenge any notion of senior citizens as cultural outsiders, yet their actual content too often reinforces the stereotype. A case in point is Grumpy Old Men, which is basically The Odd Couple retired to snowbound Minnesota: High-strung John Gustafson (Lemmon, doing Felix Ungar on Anafranil) spends his every waking hour in a snit of sniping and bitching with his neighbor Max Goldman (Matthau, his winter-weather ear flaps accentuating his basset-hound dolefulness). Despite the virility-stoking presence of a comely new arrival (Ann-Margret, who here fulfills the role of the pool in Cocoon), John and Max give the impression not of post-pubertal adult males but of tantrum-throwing, prank-pulling, petty-minded children, to the point that Gustafson's ancient and libidinous father (Burgess Meredith!) is called upon to break up one of their scuffles.
The great team of Lemmon and Matthau did their best to elevate their characters above regressive caricature, but the movie could only respond with a patronizing smile. No matter your age, it's hard to rise above a dress-up montage scored to Right Said Fred's "I'm Too Sexy."
GOM inspired several more, increasingly feeble Lemmon-Matthau collaborations, including Grumpier Old Men, Out to Sea, and, inevitably, The Odd Couple II. (Tragically, no one ever thought to cast these legends in a live-action Statler and Waldorf.) It's also a forefather of The Bucket List (released last December), one of the most recent and most commercially successful old-buddy movies, in which a salt-of-the-earth mechanic (Freeman) and a rich son of a bitch (Nicholson) embark on a One Last Chance journey of self-discovery through the magic of blue-screen technology, unlimited liquid assets, and symptom-free terminal cancer. The movie's star wattage and holiday-season timing help to explain its box-office success, but it nonetheless marks a nadir for grizzled old couples, rife as it is with inspirational clichés and tear-jerking contrivances. (Three words: long-lost daughter.) Watching it gave me newfound insight into the helpless, spluttering infuriation of being Grandpa Simpson.
In fact, American moviegoers haven't been treated to a quality old-buddy comedy since the last time a certain hotheaded septuagenarian ran for president. Clint Eastwood's cheerfully implausible Space Cowboys (2000) wears its contrivances lightly, arranging to send a former Air Force flight team (Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, and James Garner) into orbit to repair a malfunctioning satellite, one that Eastwood just happened to have designed back when the men were proto-NASA hotshots. Partly concerned with mending the broken friendship between stern codger Eastwood and merry misfit Jones, Space Cowboys invents a world where solidarity is everything, whether it's Eastwood lobbying hard to get his guys into orbit or Garner reinterpreting the role of "spotter" on Jones' behalf in the NASA weight room.
Like a lot of Eastwood's movies, this one's a little creaky and hokey, but every scene is bolstered by the actor-director's irritable, squinty integrity; in the interests of full disclosure, he even gives us a rear-view glimpse of the four wrinkly stars in the nude. A larky tribute to courage, loyalty, and sheer pig-headedness, Space Cowboys is a piece of crotchety dream-chasing that seems apt for revisitation in the autumn of candidate McCain.