Sunday, February 27, 2011

Movies I Like: The Odd Couple


“Don't be too clever for an audience. Make it obvious. Make the subtleties obvious also.”—Billy Wilder
 
The Odd Couple is a testament to the power of simplicity. It was written by one of my writing heroes, Neil Simon. He wrote the screenplay based on his hit play. The Odd Couple was so popular that it was turned into two television shows and a Saturday morning cartoon. I’m sure I’m leaving other adaptations out.

I was once talking to a playwright who informed me that, in the world of theater, Mr. Simon is not respected. I was shocked, but I should not have been surprised because he had committed two of the cardinal sins of art—he communicates clearly and is extremely popular. And when I say popular I mean to say that he is the most successful playwright in the history of Broadway.

I have never understood the concept that popularity makes one a hack while obscurity is proof of one’s genius. But I admit I am a dinosaur who admires those communicate clearly and can engage an audience.

Neil Simon’s real mistake is that he makes what he does look easy. It ain’t easy. In my opinion, the man is a craftsman and a genius. 


The Odd Couple takes two characters who are opposites and throws them together in comedic conflict. One character, Oscar Madison, played perfectly by Walter Mathau, is messy, while his roommate Felix Unger, played brilliantly by Jack Lemmon, is fastidious. So basic a concept that it seems as if it must have been penned by the ancient Roman playwright Plautus. But it wasn’t—it was Neil Simon.  In your face, Plautus!

This very basic concept yields great things.

Often I see a more recent comedy and shrug. People will say to me, “Didn’t you think it was funny?” Sometimes these things are funny, but they have nothing else—funny is all that they are. The Odd Couple has a story and characters who change.

And not the tacked-on character change that I see so often nowadays, where in the last five minutes of the film, they decide the hero better learn a lesson. Suddenly the film comes to a conclusion that the story has not been about the entire time. Not The Odd Couple; it knows what it is about throughout the whole story. It’s an old-fashioned technique called understanding your craft.

In the story both characters are divorced—or close to it. Oscar is divorced and Felix has been kicked out of his house because his wife wants a divorce, so Oscar lets his buddy move in with him.

Sidebar: Simon does something very smart here. How do you get two people who are so different from one another to live together, even when there is a lot of conflict between them? The way Neil Simon solves this problem is to make Felix so upset about his separation from his wife that he is suicidal. So now no matter how bad things get between them, Oscar cares enough about his friend to let him stay. Very smart—and the kind of care I seldom see anymore.

Here is the genius of The Odd Couple. Most people describe the two characters as one being messy and the other being clean, but that isn’t exactly right. This relationship is a replay of their marriages and how they fell apart—one of these characters is a husband and the other is a wife. What I mean is that they fill those traditional roles, so most of their arguments are typical, if not stereotypical, man vs. woman arguments. And it is through this replay of their failed marriages that each character learns to change and grow.

There are many ways in which the film demonstrates that this relationship is a marriage, but the most obvious is that when Oscar invites Felix to stay with him and they are standing outside of Oscar’s apartment door. Felix is worried that he will be too much trouble and to convince him that it’s no trouble Oscar says, “I’m proposing—what do you want a ring?”

It’s right there, out in the open for everyone to see, and yet few people do. They still think of the characters as the “messy one” and the “clean one.” The hardest thing for me to convince students of is this: that being obvious works. If you are telling your story well and people care about the characters, they will never see the tricks you are using to pull them in. They will simply be pulled in.

Younger readers may have issues with the older photographic and acting styles, but if you can get past those things you will learn lessons about storytelling that are timeless.

Yes, the movie is based on a play, and sometimes has the feeling of a play put on film, but this too can be overlooked because this is the work of amazing storytellers Jack Lemmon, Walter Mathau, director Gene Saks, and the great Neil Simon being funny and telling a worthwhile story at the same time. This is a rare thing in modern comedies. So rare that many people don’t even believe it can be done. Well, it can be done and it looks easy, but don’t be fooled—you are seeing the work of a master.

In fact, why are you still reading this—why aren’t you watching The Odd Couple?






14 comments:

KLo said...

There are a lot of very talented "popular writers" and a lot of "obscures" that are completely suited to it, in my opinion.

I've never understood why Simon didn't get his just desserts ... his work is genius!

Paul Chadwick said...

You've convinced me. I've never seen it; to my youthful eyes, a comedy about exasperated middle-aged men (though, geeze, they look young in that poster -- imagine, Walter Matthau was once young!) seemed so unhip compared to the youth culture blossoming all around it at the time.

Good point about Oscar's compassion for Felix preventing him from kicking the crazy-maker out the door. It's essential that question be properly answered.

I'd love to see you write more on this subject -- the chaos-maker who disrupts life (ironically, in this case, a finicky housekeeper), since it's evergreen. Jerome Stern called the story shape "Visitation,". You, Me and Dupree and The Cat in the Hat are a couple of (undistinguished) examples that come to mind.

Paul Chadwick said...

Let's try that again:

Visitation

Brian McD said...

Hey Klo,

Thanks for always reading the blog. I wish I knew why people think it is easy to be so good and so popular for so long.

Nice to hear that you are in the Neil Simon camp with me. The man is a genius.

Brian McD said...

Hey Paul,

Thanks for the link, man.

Personally I don’t have too much more to say on the subject of The Visitation. Except that I have always felt that it was only the flip-side of the journey story – a character can enter a new world or the new world can come to the character.

I will say that getting two characters to stay together when they can’t stand each other is really hard to do, but I think the audience becomes more invested in the story when a storyteller goes that extra step.

I remember back in ’96 Albert Brooks came out with a film called Mother about a man who moves back in with his mother who he cannot stand. Few people make me laugh the way Albert Brooks does, but I felt that the script was flawed in a fundamental way – after a while of watching this guy be so frustrated with his mother I kept asking myself, “why doesn’t he just leave?”

There was nothing holding this guy in the uncomfortable situation other than the needs of the screenwriters to have him stay no matter what. It weakens the comedy because it weakness the reality of the frustration. It makes the comedy feel forced.

I felt the same way when I saw Meet the Parents – why didn’t Ben Stiller’s character just leave. Once I started to wonder about that the film lost me. In my opinion, the storytellers should have found a way to address this issue. I think it makes the film a cheap comedy rather than one that has weight.

Look at Ground Hog Day – it manages to be funny and have weight. One of the reasons it has that weight is because the character tries everything to escape that situation. The broken down van keeps him there. If I remember right, a snowstorm also stands him and his team. He even tries several times to kill himself.

These things become an opportunity for humor, not a hindrance.

This problem of getting characters to remain in bad situations is often an issue for both comedic and dramatic conflict, but if one can solve this problem it will raise the quality the work.

Elise Stephens said...

Note taken. I'm going to see this movie.

I like what you said about how being obvious works, if its done well enough. I think it's a lot easier for young writers (like me) to take refuge in being subtle and hope the point comes through, but this risks the reader/audience missing the point entirely, which then makes the whole thing a waste.

That leaves me with the homework of studying the masters to learn how to make the obvious messages work through good believable story structure and characters they care about.

Brian McD said...

Hey Elise,

I hope you like the film and also learn something from it.

Thanks, as always, for reading the blog.

James said...

I hadn’t seen The Odd Couple for years and remember being rather underwhelmed but decided to give it another shot after reading this.

Whilst I can see some of the things you like about it I still can’t say I’m a fan overall. I suppose on some level it is just my personal issues. I find both the Felix and Oscar characters extremely irritating rather than funny. Felix’s whining and weediness make me wish he’d get a good slap and it is hard to have much sympathy for the boorish Oscar who clearly doesn’t deserve a wife. Whenever the two of them are on-screen together (which is much of the film) I find it pretty painful watching. Clearly not everyone agrees with me on this but do you actually find these characters likeable? That aspect pretty much ruins it for me.

I agree that there are signs that Simon knew what it was about from the get-go but I don’t feel the character transformations fully work. To me the ending feels premature because we don’t see the characters really put what they’ve learned into practice. If the film is really all about their failed relationships with women, surely it must end with them forging new, healthier ones? At the end we see Oscar playing poker with his buddies (albeit in a slightly more rarefied air than before), whilst Felix’s pathetic behaviour has won the affections of the English sisters, affections which I suspect will be short-lived.

In addition, as you say, the film is very stagey in its feel, something I would largely attribute to the underuse of a musical score. It’s the same problem that blights Lubitsch’s Design for Living (1933) –- I always marvel at how dated that film seems, even when compared to the master’s own Trouble in Paradise, a film that is even older (1932).

Being desperately ignorant of Neil Simon’s work I did a bit of research. I was amused to read Vincent Canby’s verdict on The Goodbye Girl -- "exhausting without being much fun." That pretty much describes how I feel about The Odd Couple.

P.S. Re: Meet the Parents. I haven’t seen that film in a long time and I am far from being its biggest cheerleader but surely Ben Stiller’s character sticks it out because he wants to marry DeNiro’s daughter? I may be totally missing the point/overlooking something, though.

P.P.S. You mustn’t think I’m some awful contrarian. I don’t comment when I agree with you 100%, which is probably 99% of the time. For the sake of balance I should perhaps go through the blogs adding “Well said!” here and “Hear hear!” there.

Brian McD said...

Hello James,

Sorry to hear that you didn’t respond the film. That happens. But it sounds like you are doing what most people do when they evaluate something – you had an emotional response to the film, but are using the language of logic to talk about it.

The difference is this. Imagine an architect saying that a building will stand for 500 years because it is well constructed.

Now imagine someone with an opposing view saying, they don’t think so because they think it’s ugly.

These arguments are about two separate things. I am talking about Architecture not aesthetics.

I’m sure that most people can’t understand it but personal taste is no more of how I was evaluating The Odd Couple then an engineer evaluating the structural integrity of a bridge.

In fact, modern engineers study Roman bridges because they are well built and there is still something to be learned from them even after 2000 years of advancement. This is not about taste. You can’t evaluate the structural worthiness of a Roman bridge by the color of the stones.

To say that you find the character’s annoying is a matter of taste. That is a valid response if we are talking about personal likes and dislikes. But it has nothing to do with what I was talking about.

You also have to ask yourself how has this guy become the most successful playwright in history – he knows something. He knows something that most other writers to not know. The man has been a very successful writer for half a century – if that’s luck it’s one hell of a lucky streak.

My guess is that a quick Internet search will reveal that there are several Neil Simon plays being performed at this very moment. Theaters, even those who don’t respect him as an artist, perform his plays because people come to see them. They have been coming since the 60s.

You are going to be much better off trying to learn what he knows than you will be by blowing him off for the flavor of the month.

James said...

Thanks for a thoughtful reply, Brian. I absolutely agree that there is much to learn from someone as successful as Neil Simon! I do think the use of ‘The Odd Couple’ relationship as a replay of their marital problems is a brilliant device but I just don’t think the execution is as flawless as perhaps you do.

I accept what you say about emotional responses and personal prejudices. Leaving that aside I still think the film could be better constructed. Billy Wilder is my absolute favourite film-maker and I liked the quote from him you opened with:

“Don't be too clever for an audience. Make it obvious. Make the subtleties obvious also.”

Later in your post you say of The Odd Couple: “Most people describe the two characters as one being messy and the other being clean, but that isn’t exactly right.” Now, to me, that suggests that for most people the subtleties weren’t obvious enough. I would say this is because we don’t see Oscar and Felix put what they’ve learned into practice by forging new, healthier romantic relationships, or, alternatively, getting back with their wives as changed men. As such most people don’t get that it’s about their failed marriages, only seeing the more superficial clean/messy dichotomy.

Were I to restructure this story I would have the big fall-out between Oscar and Felix as the end of the second act and then a longer third act in which they win over the women of their affections. Within this construction we would perhaps have followed Felix and his wife trying to patch things up and Oscar at the start of a new relationship, seeing what goes wrong in both cases. After both these relationships collapse Oscar and Felix finally learn the lessons they need to learn from each other, realise how to salvage their respective relationships, and then do so in the third act.

To my mind that restructuring would make the subtleties of the story more obvious and lead to a more satisfying finale. I also think the need to cover more ground would necessitate a leaner film with a faster pace. I do think there’s a great film lurking in The Odd Couple but I don’t think it’s the one that got made.

Clearly you can call me hopelessly arrogant to think I could improve on Neil Simon’s construction, but if I can, it is only because I am standing on the shoulders of giants. Either that or I am delusional to the nth. I suppose I would argue that The Odd Couple is just not in the same league as something like The Apartment so there must be ways to improve it. These are my brief thoughts as to how that may be possible.

I hope you don’t think I am just firing back without giving your response due consideration. I truly think Invisible Ink is the best book ever written on screenwriting so I couldn’t respect your opinion more.

Brian McD said...

Hello James,

First, thanks for the complement. I’m glad that have gotten so much from my books.

I think you mentioned that you were 23 years old – when I was 23 I remember older guys, when trying to prove a point, always mentioning how old they were and how long they had been doing whatever it was we were arguing about. They would always say things like, “I’ve been doing this 25 years!” or whatever.

When I was 23 I had no idea what that really meant. At 46 I know exactly what it means. Remember this conversation when you are 46. Time matters. Years of experience do matter.

If you continue to study story structure and continue to write you may find that you are more in awe of Neil Simon. Sometimes you have to butt up against a writing problem enough to recognize when someone else has solved that very same problem with elegance. Trust me.

I had a student who had this reaction to Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Wilder’s The Apartment.

He watched them over and over again to see why I thought they were good. After a while it slowly became clear why these films were considered classics. Now he loves them both. Now he is in awe of them both.

There are two of my earlier posts that may help you:

http://invisibleinkblog.blogspot.com/2010/10/few-thoughts-on-learning.html


http://invisibleinkblog.blogspot.com/2006/06/humble-improve.html

ERIK said...

James,

I hope you don’t take the following as me ganging up on you, but being only a few years older and much closer to the stages of learning that you're currently going through, I thought I'd offer you some recently hard-learned wisdom:

Study the guys who had their shit ground in the crucible of time and tide, and steal from them mercilessly. This includes the good AND the bad.

And at least for, say, the first five years of your ten-year journey to mastery, don’t write-off these things you perceive as mistakes. Nine times out of ten, you will find that what you initially thought of as careless, sloppy, stupid or whatever, you will find to be anything but. For us novices, this upper-echelon craft just takes persistence to fully wrangle.

For me, this was true of Finding Nemo for the longest time. And more recently, I watched The Searchers every night for a week before I began to see a glimmer of what Mr. Spielberg sees in it.

But sometimes there is something that you simply cannot suffer, a mistake so egregious, so unforgivable that you can't possibly abide it, let alone decipher it.

In such cases, it becomes your duty to understand the process that led to that your hero’s professional failure. And to do that, you must give yourself over fully. You must make the ultimate act of empathy and force yourself to understand why your hero made that creative decision – then make the same rotten decision yourself. Really commit to it.

Embrace the rotten.

Half the time, maybe more, you will find that theirs was not the wrong decision afterall -- and its correctness will strike you like a thunderbolt. As for the other half, you will find that you were indeed "right" in your result-oriented assessment, but that you are wrong in thinking that, given the same circumstances, you would have done different. This is if you're being brutally honest with yourself.

I recently put myself through this process with my hero James Cameron and his film Avatar. I cannot tell you how devastated I was by his construction in that film -- but I've since read the screenplay a few times times, and have discussed it to no end with friends and my co-writer. And the truth is, I can't honestly say that I'd make a different decision, given all the variables he was juggling. Even though I can't forgive Mr. Cameron’s mistake, if I'm being honest with myself, I have to at least respect his process.

Anyway, if it isn't obvious already, the reason we need to embrace our heroes' failures is so that we may vicariously learn from them. Because one day, we’ll find ourselves making The Odd Couple Rising -- if the Movie Gods, and hard work, favor us -- and we’ll want to know every micron of Mr. Simon’s decision-making process.

Including his “failures”.

James said...

Brian and Erik, thanks for your words of wisdom! I am fully aware of the tendency to be young and headstrong. Sadly, that doesn’t necessarily mean I can always avoid it. It's one of those great paradoxes of human existence. You have to remain humble and in that ‘student’ mentality to enable yourself to keep improving and, eventually, to become great, and yet you also have to, all along, have that belief you can become great, which takes a certain degree of arrogance. You need to be both humble and arrogant to become great.

Now, at the same time that I might be falling into the trap of being young and headstrong, there's another trap you guys might be falling into, which is being older and wiser. Naturally, if like Brian you are 46 and have studied something for years, it's pretty safe to assume a 23 year old (like me) doesn't have much to teach you. And 99 times out of 100 you'd be right. And yet…there is always that rare hundredth time.

I've set out my thoughts on how I would restructure The Odd Couple. It's easy to dismiss them out of hand because I'm 23, and what do I know? But I might just know something. And, even if Neil Simon is 99.9% correct, and I am only 0.01% correct, if you can take my 0.01%, and understand that, and add it to an understanding of Neil Simon’s 99.9%, then you’re totally ahead of the game because you know what Neil Simon knows, and what I know, and you now know more than either of us.

I do feel lucky to be 23 today because there's never been a better time to be alive and learning about screenwriting. Billy Wilder never got to watch a Billy Wilder movie when he was 23. Neil Simon never got to see a Neil Simon play when he was 23. Our own Brian McDonald never got to read Invisible Ink when he was 23! So, to some extent, I feel that, as much as I respect Billy Wilder, Neil Simon and Brian, I should aim, as arrogant as it does sound, and with the fullness of time, to eventually overtake them and their understandings – because I’ve had more opportunities to learn than they did and if I work as hard as them I can go even further. Some hope! Wish me luck guys…

Brian McD said...

James,

I'm not sure to say except that you should read this exchange again in 20 years.

"When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years." -- Mark Twain