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Buddy Buddy
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by Jack Sommersby

"Matthau/Lemmon Magic"
4 stars

Grossed less than $6 million off a $10 million budget, it was definitely a box-office flop, but for the curious-minded it's more than worth seeking out.

“You just may be the nicest person who ever lived,” Jack Lemmon’s whiny, suicidal Victor Clooney tells Walter Matthau’s stone-faced, taciturn Trabucco in the Billy Wilder-directed Buddy Buddy, which reunites that legendary director and stars for the first time since their 1974 The Front Page, and the central joke of the movie is that Trabucco’s intentions are always being misinterpreted by Victor in that Trabucco is actually a hit man and Victor’s desperate antics are distracting Trabucco from carrying out a crucial assassination of a government witness he’s been hired to take out. In the first couple of scenes, we see Trabucco impersonating a mailman and a milk-delivery driver as he dispatches the first two witnesses with an explosive package and Cyanide-laced milk; a martinet of a professional who never cracks a smile or gives so much as an inch to those who dare greet him with mere pleasantries, Trabucco goes about his business with the impersonal demeanor of an insurance salesman -- a man of very few words, he’s both menacing and gut-funny at the same time. And Victor is the perfect counterpart. A fuddy-duddy censor for the CBS network, Victor’s going through the emotional hell of a marriage on the rocks after twelve years, and is intent on fixing things up with his wife Celia (Paula Prentiss), who’s taken up with the eccentric Dr. Victor Zuckerlot (Klaus Kinski) of a nearby Palm Springs sexual-fulfillment clinic; he’s so romantically obsessed that he carries with him a cassette player with the ultra-syrupy love song “Cecilia” constantly playing from it and endlessly rehearses the line “Celia, is it all ashes or is there still a spark?” As fate would have it, Trabucco has checked into a hotel across the street from a federal courthouse where the witness is set to appear at two in the afternoon, and Victor has checked into the next room which shares a connecting door; while Trabucco is busy methodically setting up his high-powered rifle and tripod, Victor, floored that Celia has refused to come over and see him, decides to hang himself on the water pipe in the bathroom -- only it’s quite unsuccessful: the pipe collapses under the weight, water spews all over the place, the young bellboy stumbles upon the scene and goes to call the police, and Trabucco convinces the bellboy to leave Victor alone pretending to care for the man but actually wants to keep the police from intruding upon the scene. From here, Trabucco pretends to be concerned with Victor’s plight when in fact he wants noting more than to be rid of him, and in the course of events that only the gods could determine, his each and every effort is thwarted by weirdness of life that can always be counted on to foul things up, and he winds up with Victor lapping at his heels so thankful that he’s encountered a most caring individual who’d like nothing better than to see him six feet under. (We’re more than willing to subject ourselves to “suspension of disbelief” because we can’t help respond to these two vividly interesting characters we can’t help but yield to. We want to watch what predicament they’ll get into next.)

No doubt there are some prigs out there who’ll complain that Buddy Buddy isn’t exactly chock-full of invention and is inferior to the other movies the stars and director have previously collaborated on, but this is nothing more than nitpicking. Ever since their pairing in Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, Matthau and Lemmon have displayed indelible chemistry together, and even though the screenplay is nothing more than decent-structured patchwork it admirably sustains itself throughout the ninety-six-minute running time. Wilder, who made a name for himself with the Lemmon-starring Some Like it Hot and The Apartment, doesn’t exactly put a whole lot of oomph into the proceedings, and shooting in 2.35:1 Panavision seems to be burdening him more often than not (he’s working with Blake Edwards’s regular cameraman Harry Stradling, Jr., and there isn’t a single expressive image anywhere to be found); but he convincingly transports us into the mostly-singular setting of the hotel and gets a surprising amount of mileage out of it. Granted, satirizing a sex clinic could’ve held some potential and Wilder flubs it (that there’s a class in Ultrasound Stimulation is anything but a laugh riot), and casting that most eccentric of actors in Kinski might have seemed inspired but doesn’t really come to much, though it’s almost worth the price of admission to hear him say in stunted English, “Premature ejaculation…means always having to say you are sorry.” (As for the unappealing, gruesome Prentiss, she’s about as luminous as putrefied lettuce.) Still, the screenplay Wilder has concocted with his regular screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond provides the springboard for some very funny situations and a cluster of very funny lines, and if you can go into the movie with lowered expectations you’ll likely have a very good time. This is Wilder’s first R-rated feature, and he revels in vulgarity without going over the top -- he treats it in a matter-of-factor manner, which makes such incidentals as Victor taking a brief break in the middle of hanging himself to take his last leak in the toilet a lot more chuckle-filled than if he’d uncouthly accentuated it; and when a hippie elated at the birth of his child offhandedly gives a couple of joints to a pair of motorcycle officers, again, the straightforward way it’s presented has a goofy kick. But it’s the stark contrast in the Victor/Trabucco pairing that gives Buddy Buddy its best rooted moments. Victor, whose greatest vices are cheating on crossword puzzles and stealing sugar from restaurants, is the ultimate emblem of anal-retentiveness (when Celia brags about her sexual progression toward a mind-blowing orgasm, he exclaims, “I knew that was coming -- the O-word!); and Trabucco, with Matthau gamely expressively conveying inexpressiveness, is a great granitic straight man who not even an earthquake could rattle (Matthau has adjusted his voice so low it could intimidate an entire L.A. street gang). Wilder has a real handle on the comic potential here in having the confidence to let character and incident guide the story rather than trumped-up contrivances, and with his past success with Matthau and Lemmon he knows he can turn them loose and get diamond-precision work to elevate the material. Watching Buddy Buddy won’t improve your life in any way, but, like the equally-underrated John Belushi/Dan Aykroyd Neighbors, you come out of it oddly refreshed.

Still not available on DVD. A real shame.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=29048&reviewer=327
originally posted: 05/13/15 09:02:27
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USA
  11-Dec-1981 (R)

UK
  02-Mar-1982 (15)

Australia
  28-May-1982 (M)


Directed by
  Billy Wilder

Written by
  Billy Wilder
  I.A.L. Diamond

Cast
  Walter Matthau
  Jack Lemmon
  Paula Prentiss
  Klaus Kinski
  Dana Eclar



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