Grumpy Old Men (Blu-ray)
Film Length: 104 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: VC-1
Audio: English Dolby True HD 2.0 (DD 2.0 compatibility track)
Subtitles: English SDH; Spanish; French
Disc Format: 1 25GB
Theatrical Release Date: Dec. 25, 1993
Blu-ray Release Date: July 7, 2009
Some comedy pairings just work, and it’s impossible to say why. Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau were a legendary pair, and while The Odd Couple may be their best-known film, my favorite has always been 1993's Grumpy Old Men. By that point in their careers, both actors were such seasoned pros and such good friends that they could get belly laughs out of little more than calling each other names and exchanges consisting of "Huh?" and "What?"
The plot couldn’t be simpler. John Gustafson (Lemmon) and Max Goldman (Matthau) are neighbors in the frozen Minnesota town of Wabasha, who have known each other since childhood. They’ve been feuding for over fifty years, but the conflict escalates out of control when the two rivals, both widowers, set their sights on a new neighbor, the exotic and beautiful Ariel Truax (Ann-Margret, in a tricky performance that walks a fine line between grotesque and seductive). Acting as spectators to the whole affair are Gustafson’s 94-year-old father (Burgess Meredith, who gets the film’s filthiest lines) and their mutual friend, Chuck (Ossie Davis), who runs the bait shop for local ice fishermen.
Complicating circumstances are Gustafson’s efforts to avoid an annoyingly persistent IRS agent (Buck Henry, at his smarmy best), and repeated attempts by Goldman’s son, Jacob (Kevin Pollak), to smooth things over between his father and Gustafson so that Jacob can have a chance with Gustafson’s daughter, Melanie (Darryl Hannah), on whom Jacob has had a life-long crush and who is now getting divorced. (One can’t help but suspect that Pollak, himself an accomplished comic, and Hannah are there just to keep the cast from being entirely geriatric. At times, one almost expects Pollak to turn to the camera and repeat his famous line from A Few Good Men: "I have no responsibilities here whatsoever.")
But Lemmon and Matthau are the real show, and they make the most of it, calling each other names ("Putz!" "Moron!"), playing practical jokes that quickly become more destructive as Ariel turns their heads, and finally having it out in a local bar on Christmas Eve. Matthau ties the earflaps of a hunter’s cap under his chin so that the folds of his craggy face transform into something out of a Chuck Jones cartoon, and he both howls in protest over Gustafson’s misdeeds (real or imagined), and chortles in triumph over his petty revenges, like the little kid that Max Goldman still is. Lemmon pivots effortlessly from extravagant physical comedy (how many 68-year-olds would risk parodying Tom Cruise in Risky Business?) to genuine emotion in his scenes with Gustafson’s daughter and with Ariel. Since the film is set during the holiday season from Thanksgiving to Christmas, it comes with a side helping of schmaltz, but comedy remains the main course. No amount of schmaltz can stand up to a dead fish.
The closing titles of the film are justly famous for the outtakes. Burgess Meredith’s half dozen versions of one of his best lines (a series of euphemisms necessary to keep the film in PG-13 territory) are all delivered with equal enthusiasm, but my favorites are Lemmon and Matthau giving each other a hard time when they flub lines (or even when they don’t). Stay to the end for Matthau’s last ad lib; it was so good they used it in the trailer.
Unless I missed an interim release, this is the first time that Grumpy Old Men has been presented in its original aspect ratio since laserdisc, and Warner has delivered a wonderfully film-like transfer. But let’s be clear: When I say "film-like", I’m not talking about pretty pictures. I’m talking about all the grain and texture that would be on the screen if you saw the film projected in a theater. Grumpy Old Men may have been shot in a Minnesotan winter wonderland, but it’s not a Discovery Channel HD documentary. It has the rough-hewn look of its protagonists, and the transfer doesn’t try to clean that up. You get every crease in Matthau’s hangdog face, every pore in Lemmon’s, and every thread in the flannels and woolens they’ve each been wearing for years. The detailed sense of environment conveyed by the transfer adds immeasurably to one’s sense of the characters and their surroundings and the humor that naturally flows from that life, especially when Ariel bursts it wide open. Grainophobes may complain, but to borrow a phrase from Matthau’s Max Goldman, they can eat my shorts.
For those who have been bugging Warner to default to a lossless track, here’s a treat: Not only does this disc default to Dolby TrueHD, but it’s the only choice on the audio menu. Warner thus appears to be joining the mainstream approach to Blu-ray mastering, in which the Dolby lossless track is the default and the Dolby Digital compatibility track isn’t even offered to the user as an option, but is merely available to be selected by the player if the player can’t decode TrueHD. (Most currently available Blu-ray players can.) If Warner plans to stick with this approach going forward, it will make things much easier and more consistent. The studio should be commended for its attention to user feedback.
The track, like the original theatrical release, is 2.0 and sounds quite good. The dialogue is always clear, and the musical score has a pleasant tone. There is little in the way of surround ambience, which is what one would expect from a comedy of this era.
The DD 2.0 compatibility track is the standard 192 kb/ps that one would find on a DVD. In comparison to the TrueHD track, it is both louder and somewhat rougher sounding, especially in the score. The TrueHD track is preferable, if your equipment supports it.
None except the trailer, which is funny in its own right and sold the movie effectively.
It’s Lemmon and Matthau. What more is there to say?
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (Dolby TrueHD decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
Velodyne HGS-10 sub
Edited by Michael Reuben - 8/14/2009 at 12:33 am GMT