Best Friends Forever

Grumpy Old Men, The Bucket List, and the undying appeal of the old-buddy movie.

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.)

Lesser old-buddy films like Tough Guys enact a strange contradiction: By their very existence, they challenge any notion of senior citizens as cultural outsiders, yet their actual content too often reinforces the stereotype. A case in point is Grumpy Old Men, which is basically The Odd Couple retired to snowbound Minnesota: High-strung John Gustafson (Lemmon, doing Felix Ungar on Anafranil) spends his every waking hour in a snit of sniping and bitching with his neighbor Max Goldman (Matthau, his winter-weather ear flaps accentuating his basset-hound dolefulness). Despite the virility-stoking presence of a comely new arrival (Ann-Margret, who here fulfills the role of the pool in Cocoon), John and Max give the impression not of post-pubertal adult males but of tantrum-throwing, prank-pulling, petty-minded children, to the point that Gustafson’s ancient and libidinous father (Burgess Meredith!) is called upon to break up one of their scuffles.

The great team of Lemmon and Matthau did their best to elevate their characters above regressive caricature, but the movie could only respond with a patronizing smile. No matter your age, it’s hard to rise above a dress-up montage scored to Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy.”

GOM inspired several more, increasingly feeble Lemmon-Matthau collaborations, including Grumpier Old Men, Out to Sea, and, inevitably, The Odd Couple II. (Tragically, no one ever thought to cast these legends in a live-action Statler and Waldorf.) It’s also a forefather of The Bucket List (released last December), one of the most recent and most commercially successful old-buddy movies, in which a salt-of-the-earth mechanic (Freeman) and a rich son of a bitch (Nicholson) embark on a One Last Chance journey of self-discovery through the magic of blue-screen technology, unlimited liquid assets, and symptom-free terminal cancer. The movie’s star wattage and holiday-season timing help to explain its box-office success, but it nonetheless marks a nadir for grizzled old couples, rife as it is with inspirational clichés and tear-jerking contrivances. (Three words: long-lost daughter.) Watching it gave me newfound insight into the helpless, spluttering infuriation of being Grandpa Simpson.

In fact, American moviegoers haven’t been treated to a quality old-buddy comedy since the last time a certain hotheaded septuagenarian ran for president. Clint Eastwood’s cheerfully implausible Space Cowboys (2000) wears its contrivances lightly, arranging to send a former Air Force flight team (Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, and James Garner) into orbit to repair a malfunctioning satellite, one that Eastwood just happened to have designed back when the men were proto-NASA hotshots. Partly concerned with mending the broken friendship between stern codger Eastwood and merry misfit Jones, Space Cowboys invents a world where solidarity is everything, whether it’s Eastwood lobbying hard to get his guys into orbit or Garner reinterpreting the role of “spotter” on Jones’ behalf in the NASA weight room.

Like a lot of Eastwood’s movies, this one’s a little creaky and hokey, but every scene is bolstered by the actor-director’s irritable, squinty integrity; in the interests of full disclosure, he even gives us a rear-view glimpse of the four wrinkly stars in the nude. A larky tribute to courage, loyalty, and sheer pig-headedness, Space Cowboys is a piece of crotchety dream-chasing that seems apt for revisitation in the autumn of candidate McCain.