'Odd Couple' act floundering


Neil Simon may have written "The Odd Couple," but it's Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon who have turned it into a cash cow, ensuring them employment in their advancing years.

Building on a foundation dating to 1966's "The Fortune Cookie," Matthau and Lemmon used "The Odd Couple" to establish themselves as Hollywood's favorite bickering couple. After that came "Buddy Buddy," which begat "Grumpy Old Men," which begat "Grumpier Old Men," which begat this month's "Out to Sea," a big-screen "Love Boat" that's just as predictable as that unlamented TV series and only a little funnier.

Same old story -- slob Matthau and proper Lemmon endure each other for the sake of who-knows-why, barking and biting and conniving until, at some point, they realize how much they need each other, everything works out and the end credits roll. If you liked it the first time around, you'll like it the fifth time around only not quite as much. Even a funny bone builds up resistance after a while.

Matthau is Charlie, an alleged smooth operator whose love of the horses is matched only by his aversion to work. Charlie thinks his favorite patsy is his brother-in-law, Herb (Lemmon), who's really not a patsy -- just that easiest of marks, a member of the family who can't say no.

Which is how Charlie is able to convince Herb to go along with him on a Caribbean cruise ship, even though Herb is so busy feeling sorry for himself that all he wants to do is set the dinner table for two and eat alongside a picture of his late wife. What Charlie forgets to mention is that he's signed the both of them on as dance hosts, men employed by the cruise line to sweep female passengers across the dance floor.

Herb dances fine, of course, and it isn't long before he falls for one of his partners, Vivian (Gloria DeHaven). Charlie can't dance at all, of course. All he wants to do is latch on to a beautiful, rich, single woman. Fortunately, there's one on board, in the person of Dyan Cannon. Her chief qualifications are that she laughs almost all the time (at least she finds the film outrageously funny), and, at 60, she still looks fabulous, far too fabulous to fall for Walter Matthau.

"Out to Sea" is strictly by-the-numbers moviemaking; you know exactly what's going to happen next. You know Herb will have trouble letting go of his wife's memory, no matter how appealing he finds Vivian. You know Charlie is going to be able to lie and charm his way out of anything. And you know the real cad of this piece -- unctuous, dictatorial, no-talent cruise director Gil Godwyn (Brent Spiner, of "Star Trek: The Next Generation") -- is going to get his in the end.

Matthau and Lemmon know themselves so well, and how to play off each other, that they occasionally manage to rise above the mundane material; Herb's attempt to teach Charlie how to dance offers some very funny physical comedy. And Gil's British-cocktail-lounge rendition of Santana's "Oye Como Va" may be the film's high point.

Unfortunately, director Martha Coolidge lends this project none of the charm and finesse she brought to her breakthrough film, "Rambling Rose."

The supporting cast includes some wonderful actors, some of whom have been absent from the screen for too long: Hal Linden and Donald O'Connor as dance hosts (movie fans will enjoy seeing O'Connor dance his own rendition of "The Hustle," even if it comes out of nowhere), Elaine Stritch as Cannon's foul-mouthed mom, Rue McClanahan as the ship's owner.

But the mildly funny "Out to Sea" is most persuasively an indictment of how badly Hollywood treats its older actors. All involved deserve better.

'Out to Sea'

Directed by Martha Coolidge

Starring Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau and Dyan Cannon

Released by 20th Century Fox

Rated PG-13 (language)

Sun score: **

Pub Date: 7/02/97

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