The Out-of-Towners – 1970

Director Arthur Hiller
Screenplay Neil Simon
Starring Jack Lemmon, Sandy Dennis, Sandy Baron, Anne Meara, Robert Nichols, Ann Prentiss, Ron Carey, John Fielder, Billy Dee Williams, Paul Dooley, Philip Bruns, Dolph Sweet

It’s a remarkable feat to feel frustration in the opening credits of a film. Seeing Jack Lemmon’s George Kellerman at a distance nagging his wife before they even get in the car is an ominous portent. For the first act of the story, George is a bundle of nerves. Caught between his big plans and a propensity for taking offense at all perceived slights, his wife, Gwen (Denny) is a measure of calm. Her ability to navigate the things he wants within the realm of what he needs is well utilized early.

The couple are on their way to visit New York. He is in the running for an executive position within his company. He has an interview at 9am the next morning. If you don’t catch it the first time, worry not. You will hear it many times before the film is over. First the plane is delayed, then it is sent off to Boston. This sets off a cascading series of events and decisions that will be a torture for the Kellermans and for the viewer, too.

Neil Simon is a playwright, so even when there is action on the screen, there must always be a plethora of conversation. Lemmon and Denny are excellent in transmitting the exact tone and pace intended. Unfortunately, when there are visual gags in abundance, the yapping sometimes feels like a tiny dog nipping at your heels.

Technically, there is nothing wrong with The Out-of-Towners, other than the script. The direction is clever. Not incredible, but clever. The cast is great. Ron Carey, Paul Dooley, Dolph Sweet, Philip Bruns, Ann Prentiss and Billy Dee Williams? All had or continue to have solid careers in support roles.

Sandy Denny is very good for the first 2 acts. In the last act, it’s tough to tell if the script wears the viewer down or Denny. Her mid-western accent moves from Ohio to somewhere near Milwaukie, Wisconsin.

Jack Lemmon, he is a treasure. He acts the hell out of this one and hits every mark. The commitment he (and Denny) make physically is only outdone by his willing suspension of disbelief of his own disbelief. Most people would stop and take a breath. George, he just reaches a new level of indignant, takes out the ratty paper and pencil, then adds to his list of people he is going to sue.

A better script would have given Lemmon more than the propensity to get irritated and make subsequently worse decisions. He is more than capable of nuance, but he’s not given much here. By the time Denny has reached her wits end, now the story has two protagonists who are more annoying than any of the events that befall them.

This takes what could be an identifiable story into one where we kind of want to kick that yipping dog, instead of giving it something it wants to shut it up.

On the plus side is the soundtrack by Quincy Jones. The score is frantic where it needs to be, but it’s necessarily soothing when the dialogue is driving the viewer towards frustration. Great choice.

The combination of Hiller, Lemmon, Miller and Jones no doubt is what makes this a Criterion selection. I can’t argue with this. As a film, it may not be a classic, but it is worth exploring.

(***1/2 out of *****)

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