Before they were grumpy old men, before they were an odd couple, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau bantered in one of my favorite classic comedies, The Fortune Cookie. Having had the privilege of free video rentals during my stint as a clerk at the nearly-defunct Blockbuster Video, I’m sure I rented it at least a dozen times. And now, I have the privilege of owning it.
This classic comedy starts Jack Lemmon as Harry Hinkle, a TV camera operator who suffers an injury while taping a football game; linebacker “Boom Boom” Jackson runs with the ball and unknowingly collides with him, sending to the hospital.
Harry’s injuries are minor, but his brother-in-law, Willie Gingrich (aka “Whiplash Willie”), as played by Walter Matthau, is a major shyster, the kind of dude you might see on TV today promising you big cash payments for a slip-and-fall. Before Harry even wakes up, Matthau’s filed a $1 million lawsuit on his behalf, against the stadium, against the Cleveland Browns, and against the network that employs Harry, claiming Harry is paralyzed in a few parts of his body.
Harry is an honest person and at first wants nothing to do with Willie’s shenanigans. But when his ex-wife, Sandy, appears to be interested in him again, thanks to the media attention his injury has received, his weak spot is revealed, and he goes along with it. But he develops a friendship with Boom-Boom, who serves as Harry’s cook and physical therapist; Boom-Boom believes Harry’s injuries are much worse than they are.
Matthau rightly won the Academy Award for his role, and even after a few viewings, his nonverbal expressions and vocal inflections crack me up; they’re built on his willingness to go beyond the bounds of any human characteristic to get Willie that cash settlement. However, as I look for pro-single messages, I’m finding the real movie is in the developing friendship between Henry and Boom-Boom.
Harry carries a torch for Sandy, who walked on him to pursue a man who could help her further her singing career. When news of Harry’s injury amasses national media coverage, Sandy’s suddenly interested, which Willie exploits. Boom Boom spots her for a gold-digger, and when Sandy comes by and takes over Harry’s care, the guilt Boom-Boom feels takes an emotional toll on him, as he starts flubbing plays, drinking heavily, instigating barfights, and, eventually, being suspended from the Browns.
Fortunately, everything works out at the end. Harry exposes the scam to a snooping private eye and tells Sandy to get lost, even kicking her in the booty for good measure as she crawls on the floor of his apartment, trying to find her lost contact lens. The final scene has Harry and Boom-Boom tossing the ol’ pigskin around the former Cleveland Municipal Stadium.
One notable quotable from Hinkle: “Funny thing about marriage. It’s like the Army; a lot of people knock it, but you’d be surprised how many guys re-enlist.” In this case, it seems Harry finally did the right thing going AWOL.