Tuesday, January 26, 2016

My thoughts on 'Buddy Buddy' (1981): Billy Wilder's last film

Lemmon, Matthau, and Wilder: All together for the last time.

A poster for the film.
Call me morbid if you must, but today I decided to watch the final film directed by the legendary Billy Wilder (1906-2002). Its name is Buddy Buddy, and it's a farcical 1981 dark comedy starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. To say the very least, the movie's reputation is not good. How not good? Roger Ebert started his one-and-a-half-star review thusly: "This movie is appalling." He ended his one-and-a-half-star review thusly: "Buddy Buddy is incompetent. And that is the saddest word I can think of to describe it." In between those two statements are 443 more words disparaging Buddy Buddy.

Even Wilder himself, the film's director and co-writer, disowned it, claiming the project was foisted on him by the studio, MGM. "This wasn't a picture I would have chosen." Though I've seen many of Wilder's classics (Sunset Blvd., Stalag 17, Some Like It Hot, Double Indemnity, The Apartment, and more), I'd never really even heard of Buddy Buddy until yesterday. That's when I accidentally stumbled on this 2012 quote from Quentin Tarantino:
I’m really well versed on a lot of directors’ careers, you know, and when you look at those last five films when they were past it, when they were too old, and they’re really out of touch with the times, whether it be William Wyler and The Liberation of L.B. Jones or Billy Wilder with Fedora and then Buddy Buddy or whatever the hell. To me, it’s all about my filmography, and I want to go out with a terrific filmography."
So for Tarantino, Buddy Buddy was a cautionary tale, something to avoid. Even though Billy Wilder lived 20 more years, he never directed another movie after this one. For whatever reason, that piqued my curiosity. What the hell could Buddy Buddy be about? I checked the cast list on IMDb and saw the names of  Lemmon and Matthau. That made sense. They worked with Wilder on The Fortune Cookie, and Matthau even won an Oscar for that. The next highest billed person in the cast is Paula Prentiss, an actress about whom I have no opinion whatsoever. Easily the most intriguing person in the cast, however, is Polish-born madman Klaus Kinski. What in the blue hell was he doing in this movie? I decided to find out.

Buddy Buddy was never released on DVD, the only Lemmon/Matthau film not to receive that minimal honor, but the whole thing has been uploaded to YouTube, so I watched it that way. I can now report, in good conscience, that Buddy Buddy is honestly not that bad. It is far from essential, but it is also far from appalling or incompetent, especially if you don't judge it against Wilder's most famous films. Lower your expectations until they barely reach your ankles, and the movie is even kinda, sorta fun. Occasionally.

The setup is solid, and it should be. Buddy Buddy is based on a popular 1973 French comedy called A Pain in the Ass, which has been remade a total of four times already! I won't waste your time with details, but Matthau plays a contract killer who just wants to complete one more job and then retire to a tropical paradise. He's already killed two key witnesses from an upcoming mob trial, and there's just one more to go. The problem is, Matthau's only opportunity to kill the third witness will be to shoot him, sniper-style, from a hotel window across from a courthouse. So he checks into that hotel and waits for his one and only chance.

But the guy in the room next to him, a whiny, neurotic TV censor played by Jack Lemmon, is suicidal and hysterical as his second marriage falls apart, and Lemmon's antics are drawing a lot of unwanted attention to that particular floor of the hotel. Matthau has no choice but to pretend to be Lemmon's friend and become involved in sorting out his personal problems. Eventually, Lemmon's soon-to-be-ex-wife (Prentiss) and her current lover, a sex clinic quack (Kinski), are drawn into the chaos. Along the way, water pipes are broken (messily), a baby is born (cleanly), a laundry chute is utilized as an escape route, and Matthau has Thorazine injected into his ass at a most inconvenient time. It's that kind of picture.

Roger Ebert's review claims that the movie has absolutely no laughs, but I'll dispute his accounting practices. I counted at least two, maybe three laughs during my own viewing. For the most part, the movie is less a total disaster than it is a souffle that fails to rise. That's what we have here: a flat souffle. Despite the profanity and a smattering of sexual semi-candor, Buddy Buddy seems like a cheap made-for-TV movie or maybe a sitcom minus the laugh track. Wilder's direction neither helps nor hurts. He doesn't do anything to enhance the comedy, but he doesn't impede it either. Buddy Buddy doesn't blow any punchlines; it's just that the punchlines were never that good to begin with.

Wilder claimed the script was a rush job, written under pressure with I.A.L. Diamond. That I can believe. Diamond and Wilder wrote a string of memorable comedies together, including Some Like It Hot, but this feels like a shaky, sketchy -- though salvageable -- first draft. A lot of the supporting characters, like the clueless cops (including Ed Begley, Jr.) and nervous hotel employees, feel like placeholders, as if Diamond and Wilder were planning to flesh out those roles "a little later" but never got around to it. As it is, they stand around with nothing much to do.

By and large, the movie is drab and flat. A lot of that is due to the fact that the majority of Buddy Buddy takes place in Matthau's dumpy hotel room. The place is just ugly enough to be displeasing to the eye, but not quite ugly enough to be interesting. The whole movie, except for the ending, is very beige and blah from a visual standpoint. I'm very sorry to report that Lalo Schifrin's slightly cheesy score does not help, even though Schifrin has composed a lot of great music for other movies and TV shows.

A lot of Buddy Buddy feels like a mish-mash of different eras. The film takes place in 1981, but Matthau's character seems to have beamed in from the Eisenhower era, and the same goes for Dana Elcar's grousing police captain. I might have set the whole thing in the 1950s and shot it in black-and-white. It would have meant losing the hippie couple (don't ask), but trust me, that's no great loss. It would have also meant losing the "zany" sex clinic where Kinski works (ditto), but that's no great loss either. And losing the color would have been a massive improvement.

If there's a reason to see Buddy Buddy, other than as a historical curiosity, it's to watch Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau do what they do so well together. There's a reason why these two were cast as friends, enemies, and frenemies in films for decades. They're a perfect duo. Lemmon pleads and wheedles and dithers and pesters and overshares. Matthau grumbles and mumbles and seethes and cringes and lies. The movie is like a feature-length version of the irresistible force paradox, with Lemmon as the irresistible force and Matthau as the immovable object.

Would the movie have worked better with a more serious actor like Clint Eastwood in the role of the killer, as Billy Wilder later suggested? I don't know. Maybe. You can only judge the movie that was made, not the one that wasn't made. Personally, I was glad to see the Matthau-Lemmon chemistry was basically intact during the Reagan years. Maybe they weren't at their peak, but they weren't far off it either.

Fans of The Simpsons might get a kick out of this movie, since Lemmon plays a bumbling, accident-prone sad sack very much like that show's Gil Gunderson character. Jack is in full-on "Gil" mode here. The best way to approach Buddy Buddy, in the end, is to imagine what it would be like if Gil were roommates with Fat Tony. Doesn't that sound at least a little funny?