Friday, April 22, 2011

The Fortune Cookie (1966)

Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in their first screen pairing
Billy Wilder's 1966 comedy tries to tempt lightning into striking twice by redecorating The Apartment as a satire about the great American pastime: lawsuits.  As in that 1960 tragicomic masterpiece, Jack Lemmon plays a man whose general decency is all too easily swept under the rug when it gets in the way of the more powerful men in his life.  Although it can't play in the same league as Wilder's greatest films, it's nevertheless a nimble comedy that introduced one of cinema's great comedy duos by pitting Jack Lemmon against Walter Matthau for the first time.

Lemmon plays Harry Hinkle, a mild-mannered television cameraman working for CBS sports in Cleveland.  While covering a Cleveland Browns game he's inadvertently tackled by player Luther "Boom Boom" Jackson (Ron Rich) and suffers a mild concussion.  At least it starts out as a mild concussion.  Once his shyster attorney brother-in-law (Matthau) gets a whiff of the possibilities Lemmon is in for weeks of wheelchairs, secret injections and neck braces -- whatever it takes to defraud an insurance company out of half a million dollars.

Judi West finds half a million new reasons to love Jack Lemmon
Just like C.C. Baxter, Lemmon's Hinkle is seriously put out by the arrangement, and not quite able to rid himself of the unusual ailment of knowing right from wrong.  But all weak men can be led from the path of virtue, Wilder insists, so long as there is a tempting enough carrot dangling in front of them.  In this case, the carrot is Sandy, Hinkle's ex-wife (Judi West).  She comes back into his life when she hears of the injury -- although whether she's drawn to him from sympathy or the vision of a big cash settlement is a question Hinkle would prefer not ask.

Instead of Shirley MacLaine, Ron Rich as "Boom Boom" is the innocent undone by Lemmon's moral failings.  Jackson is so guilt-ridden over the possibility that he may have seriously crippled Hinkle that he devotes all his time to seeing to his every need, to the detriment of his own career.  Rich's performance is good, if a little one-note.

Ron Rich as Luther "Boom Boom" Jackson
Unfortunately, while this setup led to a brilliantly controversial deconstruction of American sexuality and gender relations in The Apartment, Wilder's targets here just aren't as impressive.  De Tocqueville's observation that Americans eventually turn every dispute into a legal dispute was already more than a century old, and it's difficult to imagine anyone's feathers getting ruffled by the suggestion that lawyers are unscrupulous.  It's hard to build a satire about premises everyone already agrees with.

Nevertheless, even if the satire is toothless, the laughs keep coming thanks to the comic chemistry of Lemmon and Matthau.  The latter won a best support actor Oscar for his performance as Willie Gingrich, and it's easy to see why the two would continue to work together so often.  Give a half-way decent script to these two and they were always a joy to watch, even if the end result didn't always rise to the level of greatness Billy Wilder was sometimes capable of.

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