Odd Couple Films, from The Fortune Cookie to FOR A GOOD TIME, CALL…

By Nick Dawson | August 15, 2012
The Girls of FOR A GOOD TIME, CALL...

It’s a tale as old as time: two opposites who attract. In the more common version, the protagonists are lovers, but the more interesting stories aren’t about hackneyed romance but instead deal with individuals who overcome considerable differences to find common ground, whose partnerships are highly unlikely and frequently strained. In short, odd couples. In the bawdy comedy FOR A GOOD TIME, CALL..., we see two women –– the restrained and proper Lauren (Lauren Miller) and bubbly, hyper-confident Katie (Ari Gaynor) –– who formed a deep hatred of each other in college and continued it into adulthood, when circumstances beyond their control force them to become roommates.  But try as they might to keep their grudge alive, the two form an unorthodox and unusually strong bond when they find they need each other to run a phone sex line. In his review of the film for The House Next Door, Michal Oleszczyk wrote, “With Katie as foul-mouthed as Lauren is (initially) demure, they're a perfect team — the former providing all the inspired moaning and masturbation fodder she can muster, and the latter taking care of the business end of things only (up to a point).” In the following slideshow, we look back at the rich tradition of odd couple movies, learning from films as diverse as 48 Hrs. (in which Nick Nolte’s racist white veteran cop teams up with Eddie Murphy’s irrepressible motormouth criminal) and Kiss Me, Guido (about a brash homophobic Italian American and a gay theater actor prejudiced against “Guidos” who end up living together) that unusual pairings are often the most successful. Or, at least, the most entertaining for moviegoers to watch.

The Fortune Cookie (1966) | The Original Odd Couple

When you think of cinema’s odd couples, most likely the first double act you think of is Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. In 1968, the pair played chalk-and-cheese roommates Oscar and Felix in, yup, The Odd Couple, but it was two years earlier that they had their first ever collaboration, teaming up in Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie. Though Wilder had long wanted to work with Matthau, the writer/director first snagged him for the role of shameless ambulance-chasing lawyer Willie Gingrich (aka “Whiplash Willie”), who's always looking for a harmless injury that he can exploit for financial gain. (“What's wrong?” he asks. “Insurance companies have too much – they have to microfilm it.”) When Willie’s brother-in-law, CBS cameraman Harry Hinkle (Jack Lemmon), is bulldozed by a huge football player while on the sidelines covering a Cleveland Browns game, Willie’s eyes light up with dollar signs. To milk the situation for all he can, Willie claims Harry is now paralyzed, and the more morally upright but still soft-willed Hinkle plays along with the ruse when he sees his lovely ex-wife (Judi West) is now attentive to him again because of the injury. The film was hugely memorable for Matthau, who suffered a heart attack during production – which shut down filming for weeks – and then won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his breakout performance. It was the first time that Matthau had fully flexed his comic muscles, and it was apparent to all –– and not least Billy Wilder –– that he and Lemmon were perfect jarring comic foils: Lemmon, fussy, uptight and ethical; Matthau, an untrustworthy, manipulative shyster-type. In his review of The Fortune Cookie, Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote of the pair, “Mr. Matthau, with eyes that are in a perpetual squint of calculation, makes a fine figure of a comic villain – bushy-browed, chop-licking, impudently optimistic even in the face of disaster. He looks, in fact, like the cat in the Tom & Jerry cartoons as he persuades Mouse Lemmon to go along with the caper...Mr. Lemmon, in turn, is the perfect knucklehead, a guy with a wet noodle for a spine, who can't help being sentimental about a girl even while she's picking his pockets.” Lemmon and Matthau worked together again numerous times, most notably on such movies as The Front Page (again for Wilder) and the Grumpy Old Men movies, in which they showed that, 30 years on, their curmudgeonly chemistry still worked as well as ever.

Harold and Maude (1971) | The Generation Gasp

While in this slideshow we’re mostly staying away from romantic odd couples, this film is essential to include just because of how unusual it is. Simply put, the titular pairing in Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude may be the oddest couple in film history. Harold (Bud Cort) is a 20-year-old rich kid who lives in a huge mansion in the Bay Area and spends his days attending funerals, riding around in a Jaguar XKE that’s been converted into a hearse, and repeatedly staging elaborate faked deaths in order to shock and upset his emotionally distant mother. Maude (Ruth Gordon), conversely, is a 79-year-old Holocaust survivor who, despite also attending funerals, is in love with life in the same way that Harold romanticizes death, and has a joy in all she does –– whether it be stealing cars or “rescuing” trees –– that is infectious. Though Harold and Maude become lovers at a certain point in the film, it is their initial friendship –– which readies Harold to enter the world of the living –– that is most substantial and charming. Though their unusual onscreen partnership was so convincing, ironically Cort and Gordon didn’t really get on that well during the filming of Harold and Maude; Gordon was a sassy, old-school actress (and also a gifted comic writer) who believed in learning her lines and getting on with it, while Cort was an ex-stand up comedian who’d been initiated into filmmaking working with Robert Altman, whose approach to cinema went against every practice of classic Hollywood. However, they ultimately ended up becoming close shortly after shooting on Ashby’s movie ended, when Gordon was very supportive to Cort as he coped with his dying father. When Harold and Maude was released, the first review (by Variety) declared that the film had “all the fun and gaiety of a burning orphanage,” while Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote, that “Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon are supposed to appear magnificently mismatched for the purposes of the comedy. They are mismatched, at least visually. Mr. Cort's baby face and teen-age build look grotesque alongside Miss Gordon's tiny, weazened frame.” Harold and Maude, however, ultimately survived its initial critical mauling and ended up one of the most beloved cult films of all time, after being “reclaimed” by legions of fanatical fans who discovered it at rep houses and campus screenings, often playing on a double bill with Philippe de Broca's King of Hearts.

48 Hrs. (1982) | Law and Disorder

One of the most famous “buddy movies” of the 1980s was about two people who were anything but friends. Walter Hill’s 48 Hrs. was so enjoyable exactly because of the friction between the two protagonists of the film, Nick Nolte’s gruff and grizzled murder detective Jack Cates, and Eddie Murphy’s slick, slippery convict Reggie Hammond, who Cates pulls out of jail to help him nab a ruthless on-the-run robber. For the duration of two days, the unlikely pair join forces to try and catch Albert Ganz (James Remar), who Hammond used to work with, but spend much of the time bickering, exchanging wonderfully un-PC dialogue that reveals the prejudices each has about the other. Hammond calls Cates a “fucking bastard,” ridicules his policing skills and responds to many of Cates’ comments with scathing sarcasm, while Cates is unrelentingly insulting and racist about Hammond, saying, “You're just a crook on a weekend pass! You're not even a goddamn NAME anymore! You're just a spearchucker with a number stencilled on the back of his prison fatigues!” Cates declares early on, “We ain't partners. We ain't brothers. And we ain't friends. I'm puttin' you down and keepin' you down until Ganz is locked up or dead. And if Ganz gets away, you're gonna be sorry YOU ever MET me!” (to which Hammond replies, after a beat, “I’m already sorry”). Nevertheless, the two do end up working well together despite, if not because of, their differences, as Hammond’s street smarts and Cates’ hardened lawman instincts lead them to Ganz in the end. Nolte and Murphy had great on-screen chemistry and, according to the former, improvised the majority of their dialogue. In her review of 48 Hrs., Janet Maslin of the New York Times wrote, “Mr. Murphy and Mr. Nolte make a fine, unlikely team, seeming to enjoy each other's company even when saying the rottenest things, and rising bravely to meet each new challenge. Mr. Nolte, as the grouch of the pair, handles the less showy role expertly, while Mr. Murphy runs away with every comic situation that comes his way. At times, these two sound so tough it's almost funny, especially when they're forced to trade the lines, ''You're gonna be sorry you ever met me'' and, ''I'm already sorry.'' This exchange is staged twice, instigated first by one partner and later the other, so that it's clear their friendship is reciprocal and tidily symmetrical.”

Outrageous Fortune (1987) | Dueling Divas

It’s very apt that a film whose title is a quotation from Hamlet’s soliloquy is about people in the acting profession –– but the most telling word in the title is “outrageous,” as no word better describes Bette Midler or her character. In Arthur Hiller’s hit 1987 comedy, Midler plays loud, ballsy actress Sandy Brozinsky, who is taking a course with famed acting teacher Stanislav Korzenowski (Robert Prosky), just like her comic foil, the much classier and sophisticated thesp Lauren Ames (Shelley Long). Not only do these two wildly different women share an acting teacher, they also unwittingly are sharing a boyfriend, as both have fallen for the wiles of the loathsome lothario Michael Sanders (Peter Coyote). When he fakes his own death suddenly, in a attempt to get out of this sticky situation, the two work out that the spineless Sanders isn’t dead at all and determine to track him and force him to make a decision about who he wants to be with. Of course, their travels together on this quest are very fraught as a result of the major personality clash between the two, but the involvement of CIA agents and hitmen in the pursuit –– it turns out Michael is a double agent as well as a two-timer –– bonds the motley duo together as they fight for survival. Fittingly for a film about two rival actresses, Midler and Long –– then riding high in their respective careers –– both insisted on top billing, and would not cede to the other; as a compromise, Long got top billing west of the Mississippi, and Midler was the movie’s main star east of the Mississippi. Writing in the Chicago Tribune, Dave Kehr said of the film, “Outrageous Fortune has gun battles, sword fights, wild chases and even an Indian attack, but it doesn't need any of these things as long as it has two talented actresses and an interesting relationship between them. The friction between Long’s prissy refinement and Midler’s earthy abandon may seem a little schematic on paper, but the two performers bring it some life-giving warmth and detail.” Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times agreed, writing, “Long and Midler are so good they almost make us forget that Outrageous Fortune is yet another elaborate chase movie with the usual comic CIA and KGB stooges and vast, familiar stretches of Southwestern deserts. [Screenwriter Leslie] Dixon shrewdly develops Lauren and Sandy's highly individual personalities with great care, then permits Long and Midler to show how, once they are thrown together in the craziest of circumstances, the two could actually become friends. There's a nice woman behind Lauren's pretensions, just as there's a warmth and vulnerability beneath Sandy's brassy facade.”

Tatie Danielle (1990) | Faux Pas De Deux

While Harold and Maude managed to tackle the idea of a young/old odd couple in a way that was both shocking and strangely sweet and sentimental, French director Étienne Chatiliez revisited the same territory in 1990, creating a film that was much more darkly, deliciously comic. The movie’s 82-year-old title character, played by veteran theatre actress Tsilla Chelton, is a thoroughly nasty piece of work, as mean and hateful as Maude is kind and joyous. Janet Maslin of the New York Times described her as a “magnificent monster” who “delights in bringing tears to the eyes of those who treat her kindly.” She torments her 70-something caretaker until she can take it no more, and is spiteful towards her few family members –– primarily Danielle’s grandnephew Jean-Pierre Billard (Eric Prat) and his wife and children –– willfully humiliating them at every turn. (Ironically, she is bitter because of the death of her husband, and now throws herself into a fantasy world of trashy soap operas and Barbara Cartland romance novels.) Danielle, however, finds her match when her poor suffering relatives leave her behind to go on holiday to Greece and hire 20-something Sandrine (Isabelle Nanty), who is the first person not to stand for the old lady’s mean words, feigned illnesses or vindictive actions. The two are similarly emotionally stunted, and so find a curious kinship with each other. Sandrine, as Roger Ebert wrote, “has her own agenda. She is selfish, too, and has no time to suffer fools. She calls Tatie's bluffs. There is a long, elaborate sequence in which poor Tatie manages to call the police and get on the front pages as a shamefully neglected senior – but even this revenge doesn't affect the young woman, because she simply doesn't care.” Unlike many popular French comedies, Hollywood did not snap up the remake rights for this dark and pointedly unsentimental movie.

Class Act (1992) | Street Smarts

The 80s and 90s rap duo Kid 'n Play are maybe most famous within film for their involvement in the House Party trilogy, but the pair also took a trip into odd couple territory with Class Act, which put an urban spin on Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper tale. Christopher “Kid” Reid played the ultra-square academic whiz Duncan Pinderhughes, who will get into the highly prestigious Hafford University if he can only pass gym class, while Christopher “Play” Martin took the more rough 'n' ready role of former prisoner Michael "Blade" Brown, allowed out of jail on the understanding that he will graduate high school. Due to a clerical error, the identity of the two polar opposite pupils is switched, and hip hop hilarity ensues. Duncan finds himself personified as a bad boy (and discovers that, in fact, he has untapped athletic abilities that he never knew about) while “Blade” has to use his street smarts to bluff his way through the intellectually intense classes that Duncan signed up for. “Blade” also leans on Duncan, whose academic success can guarantee him his freedom, and both educates him on the ways of the street and gives him a new, cool homeboy look. (For the role, Kid's trademark 10-inch hi-top fade haircut was restyled into braids.) The two become so tight that Duncan's parents question his sexuality, believing that their son's constant cohort may be more than just a friend. And, as in all odd couple movies of this kind, the two discover that, despite their very obvious differences, they are much closer to one another than they –– or anyone else –– had previously known. The New York Times' Janet Maslin praised Class Act, saying that “the movie doesn't aspire to much more than cartoonish verve, but Kid 'n Play easily hold it together. Their comic timing is right, and their humor manages to be both traditional and current. (An argument about whether one of them is "deaf" or "def" unfolds in the best "Who's on first?" fashion.)” Roger Ebert also noted the film's insightful depiction of people's reaction to character archetypes, saying that it “shows how, once a student gets the reputation of being smart, he somehow gets better grades no matter what he does – while a student with a bad reputation is ignored, no matter how hard he tries. In the social arena, it works the other way, and the bright kid is more attractive to girls when they think he's more dangerous than intelligent.”

Kiss Me, Guido (1997) | Same Sex Marriage

In the mid-1980s, Tony Vitale was working for Club Med as a DJ and became very good friends with his boss, a gay man. "He had the most dynamic personality of anybody I ever met,” recalls Vitale, “and I wanted to be like him, but as a straight guy." Their colleagues began calling them “The Odd Couple,” and Vitale conceived the idea of making a TV show about two best friends –– one straight, one gay –– who live together. After starting to work in film in the early 90s, Vitale pitched his idea to network TV execs as a vehicle for Harvey Fierstein and Andrew Dice Clay, but was told Americans weren't ready for a gay main character on a sitcom. Vitale instead took his concept and turned it first into a play and then, inspired by the success of Kevin Smith's DIY hit Clerks, a movie. Kiss Me, Guido, Vitale's feature debut as writer/director, told the story of Frankie (Nick Scotti), a not-too-bright pizzeria worker who leaves the Bronx for the bright lights of Broadway, moving to Manhattan in the hope of becoming the next De Niro or Pacino. He moves in with a “GWM,” Warren (Anthony Barrile), who's also an aspiring actor, believing that “GWM” stands for “Guy With Money” –– rather than “Gay White Male.” While Frankie's upbringing has resulted in him being somewhat homophobic, Warren too is prejudiced against his roommate, looking scornfully upon this “Guido,” or stereotypical Italian American. Through this accidental living situation, the two overcome their differences, and by the end of the film Frankie has replaced the injured Walter in a play where, as the title alludes to, he has the opportunity to prove he's fully over his initial homophobia. Wrote Edward Guthmann in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Vitale doesn't go for the predictable: Instead of having Warren fall hopelessly in love with gorgeous Frankie, he turns them into friends, has Frankie pose as Warren's new boyfriend and gives Warren a broken ankle so Frankie has to replace him in a stage play that requires him to kiss a man.” And, as a nice coda, the story of Vitale and his initial plot concept came full circle in 2001, when a TV version of Kiss Me, Guido – entitled Some of My Best Friends – hit the screen, co-created by the straight Vitale and gay Marc Cherry, who would later go on to conceive Desperate Housewives.

Elling (2001) | An Odder Couple

For this film more than any other on the list, there is a definite emphasis on “odd” in the term “odd couple.” Yes, it's safe to say that both protagonists in Petter Næss's sweet-natured, Academy Award-nominated comedy Elling are decidedly unusual creatures –– particularly the titular hero –– and that their partnership too is most certainly out of the ordinary. Played by Per Christian Ellefsen, Elling is a high-voiced, effete, neurotic mama's boy who, despite being in his 40s, has extremely limited social skills, is paralyzed by jangling nerves and dizziness, and is terrified by the prospect of being out in the world. When his mother dies, Elling is uprooted from the safety of his old home and placed in an institution, where he is made to share a room with Kjell Bjarne (Sven Nordin), who is of limited intelligence and is utterly fixated on sex. They are so different from one another that they actually prove a perfect match: Kjell Bjarne is too single-mindedly preoccupied by copulation to have any nerves about being in the world, while Elling has a much more inquiring intellect than his lunkheaded roommate, and together they manage to function so well that they are even allowed to get an apartment together outside the walls of the institution. In his highly appreciative review of Elling, Roger Ebert wrote, “In a subtle, half-visible way, Elling follows the movie formula of other movies about mentally impaired characters... But Elling has no lessons to teach, no insights into mental illness, no labels, no morals. It is refreshingly undogmatic about its characters, and indeed Elling and Kjell may not be mentally ill at all – simply unused to living in the real world. The humor comes from the contrast between Elling's prim value system, obviously reflecting his mother's, and Kjell's shambling, disorganized, good-natured assault on life. If Felix and Oscar had been Norwegian, they might have looked something like this.” After becoming a huge hit in Scandinavia, a critical success worldwide and earning an Oscar nod for Best Foreign Language Feature, Elling went on to spawn both a prequel and a sequel and was also adapted into a Broadway play in 2007. Though a Hollywood remake of the film has long been planned, it has yet to materialize.

The Matador (2005) | A Friend to Kill For

Richard Shepard is a highly underrated American director who primarily works within the studio system but makes lively, picaresque films that have an originality and idiosyncrasy to them that is distinctly indie in feel. Possibly Shepard's finest movie is his 2005 effort The Matador, which drew attention for the Golden Globe-nominated performance of Pierce Brosnan, one of its two leads, who at the time was trying to get out of the shadow of his most recently vacated role, namely James Bond. Brosnan plays one half of The Matador's odd couple, the coarse, emotionally stunted British hitman Julian Noble, who fulfills his assignments with surgical skill but the rest of the time throws himself into a hedonistic lifestyle of booze and prostitutes with suicidal abandon. Greg Kinnear's good-hearted but unexceptional salaryman Danny Wright is the heart of the movie, a man whose spirit has been crushed by the death of his young son and being laid off because of the ailing economy. In Mexico City, where he's hoping to resurrect his life with a business deal, Danny meets Julian and – despite a rocky first encounter and a mammoth personality clash – the two forge an unlikely friendship. Both are facing mid-life crises: Julian because he can't face a hired killer's existence anymore, and Danny because he knows only getting this deal (which he's an underdog to clinch) will save his finances and his marriage to his childhood sweetheart (Hope Lange). Julian has the cutthroat attitude and clinical cool that Danny lacks in business, while Danny, unlike Julian, is emotionally healthy and is not crippled by guilt or regret; but the way that Shepard engineers the progression of the friendship of these two mirror images is as unpredictable as it is entertaining. In the New York Sun, Nicholas Rapold wrote of the film, "This dance of getting-to-know-you and trading fears is what carries the movie, right through that long-anticipated "reveal" of Julian's profession, confessed in the stands of the bullfighting arena. By now the two are thick as thieves, but The Matador always manages to keep even familiar plot turns fresh. ...The cast here turns in smooth performances under the challenge of the shifting tones. Mr. Brosnan, relaxed, is less stunning for the [film's famous] Speedo-and-boots parade than for letting that patrician face crumple up in sobs under the pressure. Mr. Kinnear gets something real for a change out of his prissy-white-bread routine – a boyishness and Midwest-guy decorum perfect for the film's fraught male friendship."

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