Read more from Slate's Geezers Issue.
Since Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy first put on their tramp suits and pancake makeup back in the 1920s, Hollywood has extracted affectionate laughter from audiences according to the ever-reliable formula of the buddy movie. The key is to generate a comic spark from the friction of two dissimilar personalities: the slob and the obsessive-compulsive sharing the same apartment (Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in The Odd Couple), the gruff bounty hunter and the neurotic accountant sharing a pair of cuffs (Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin in Midnight Run), Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson sharing a bathtub (Shanghai Noon), etc. The genre has proliferated many overlapping subcategories, which include the cop buddy movie, the on-the-lam buddy movie, and the coming-of-age buddy movie. But the most endearing variation of all, at least in its outlines, might be the old-buddy movie.
The old-buddy movie rests on a simple conjecture, one that can easily turn mushy: When you've outlived your spouse, or resent your failing body, or feel restless and marginalized in retirement, the comforts and solidarity of friendship are more important than ever—even when the friendship in question is a total pain in the ass. The geriatric wing of the buddy comedy has plenty of odd couples, epitomized by the actual Odd Couple, Lemmon and Matthau, who portrayed bickering, inseparable neighbors in the 1993 hit Grumpy Old Men. The old-buddy movie adds a second layer of incongruity by playing off pat cultural expectations of the elderly—specifically, all the things they supposedly don't do: break-dance (Don Ameche in Cocoon), sky-dive (Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman in The Bucket List), fornicate (various). The problem, though, is that refuting these assumptions for laughs can collapse into isn't-Pops-the-cutest mawkishness. Any whiff of condescension will give the humor a funny odor, which makes the old-buddy comedy a particularly tricky subgenre to pull off.
One way to succeed is to make sure your grumpy old men spend ample time and energy resisting the very premise of the movie they're in. The Sunshine Boys (1975) stars Matthau as Willy Clark, an unemployable ex-vaudeville star who's persuaded by his nephew/agent to reunite with his longtime comedy partner, Al Lewis (George Burns), for a TV special, though they haven't performed together—or spoken—in more than a decade. (Matthau was a quarter-century Burns' junior, but with his doughy, sad-Nixon features and gravel-road voice, he was practically born middle-aged.) The squabbling duo's inability to rehearse or perform a comedy routine becomes a running comedy routine unto itself, since the offstage Lewis and Clark settle instinctively into the punning, absurdist wordplay and perfectly calibrated rhythms of their mothballed stage act.
Any threat of sentimentality in their reunion is undercut by Clark's relentless surliness and Lewis' unflappable straight-man composure, and, refreshingly, neither character seems all that keenly interested in this proverbial One Last Chance at stardom. If they can spend an hour in the same room without a life-threatening incident, that's heartwarming triumph enough.
Like many old-buddy movies, The Sunshine Boys can be seen as a quasi-sequel, wherein Lewis and Clark revisit and fitfully revive their showbiz heyday. The beloved Cocoon (1985) is also a second-chance movie, in which a trio of retiree pals (Ameche, Hume Cronyn, and Wilford Brimley) find the fountain of youth in a swimming pool full of alien pods, rendering them happy, energetic, and randy in a way that only recidivist teenagers can be.
Less charmingly, in Tough Guys (1986), train robbers Kirk Douglas (hard-bodied into his 70s) and Burt Lancaster re-enter society after 30 years in prison and—after a fish-out-of-water interval spent puzzling over newfangled phenomena like yogurt shops and gay people—engineer an elaborate do-over of the crime that put them away in the first place. The film's neck veins bulge with the strain of reanimating the salad days of both its characters and stars; Douglas and Lancaster still had it, but the movie was secondhand goods. (The big in-joke comes when frustrated cop Charles Durning asks, "What is this, Gunfight at the OK Corral?"—a movie that Douglas and Lancaster starred in about the time that their characters went to jail.)
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