September 5, 2013
The Out-of-Towners – US, 1970
Arthur Hiller’s The Out-of-Towners is about a married couple from Ohio, George and Gwen Kellerman (Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis), who are going to New York City for a job interview. In a perfect world, it would be an easy task, and, indeed, in the beginning it looks to be just that. On the plane, George tantalizes his wife by telling her the details of their idyllic itinerary, which includes a luxury suite, dinner at a five-star restaurant, and a romantic evening back at the hotel, and after each juicy detail, Gwen smiles rather happily and asks him to tell her more, as if these words marked the beginning of an extensive round of foreplay. However, with the New York skyline in perfect view from their window, disaster in the form of thick fog strikes. Their plane is forced to circle for a few hours and is then diverted to Boston. It is the first in a very long string of obstacles and challenges that they will face as they try to make their way to New York.
What follows are a series of zany misadventures that audiences accustomed to later films such as Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and Adventures in Babysitting will be familiar with. However, those films were primarily about the characters and what they learn about life, love, and friendship during their journey. The Out-of-Towners differs slightly in that it is also a critique of big cities in the late 1960’s, and it may help contemporary audiences to remember that New York did not always have the stellar reputation it has today. As depicted in the film, New York is a virtual cesspool of criminals, desensitized residents, police officers just going through the motions, and professionals who seem to place more importance on following procedures than they do on the individuals in front of them. In fact, the only person who goes out of his way to help them is himself an out-of-towner.
The film’s version of the big city is obscured slightly by Jack Lemmon, whose performance at times comes dangerously close to making him seem neurotic. Because of this, George’s pleas and consternations occasionally can appear somewhat unreasonable, especially his fallback strategy of threatening everyone he blames for ruining his perfect weekend with a lawsuit and unemployment. It helps to remember that this was a more innocent time, one when the idea of frivolous lawsuits and ambulance-chasing attorneys was not as commonplace or criticized as it is now. In the film, George is depicted as just standing up for himself, and to be fair, the people whose names he so determinedly writes down seem as assured that they are in the right as George. After all, their actions are backed by company policy, which a company I used to work for always advised us to follow, but not quote to customers. George Kellerman’s exacerbations are proof of the wisdom behind these words.
The film was written by the great playwright Neil Simon, and as a result of his strong writing and his creation of two consistently interesting and engaging characters, the film still works today. I especially enjoyed the banter between George and Gwen, which often begins with George saying, “Don’t worry about…” and Gwen retorting “I’m not worried about…” Simon has always had a knack for establishing personality quirks early in his scripts and maintaining them throughout, and his characters often change at precisely the moment when they should. If the script has a fault, it is that some of its gags can be seen coming a mile a way and some of its foreshadowing is too obvious. However, only two of the gags in the film are truly questionable due to present-day sympathies. One involves a boy in a park, which present-day audiences will see coming a mile a way and likely sigh with displeasure and unease. The other one, which I will not reveal, involves an incident that few people are comfortable joking about nowadays, and as a result of its inclusion, people may be put off by what takes place in the film’s final scene. I should also mention that the film is scored by Quincy Jones, and his music perfectly establishes the innocence of certain scenes, as well as the newness and discovery taking place at other moments in the film.
A film like this one runs the risk of wearing out its welcome, and to be fair, The Out-of-Towners comes dangerously close to doing this. There were times as I watched the film that I just wanted them to get where they are going and be done with it. This is usually the sign of a film that is longer than it should be and that has perhaps a few too many twists and turns. However, I never lost interest in the film or stopped being moved by its central characters. Lemmon and Dennis have great chemistry from start to finish, and they manage to keep the film afloat even when it appears to be teetering on collapse. In fact, in another time, the film might have been the start of a very memorable comedy team. The Out-of-Towners remains fun and oftentimes touching, and I believe fans of old-school comedy will enjoy it. (on DVD)