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The Wrinkly, Decrepit History of the Geezer Buddy Comedy

From ‘The Sunshine Boys’ to ‘The Last Laugh,’ the movies have always tried to find the bright side to getting old

In the early 1970s, Neil Simon was revisiting several ideas for plays that he had started only to abandon. One of them seemed to have potential. As he later recalled in his memoir, “It was about two ex-vaudeville comics, a team who had broken up their act after nearly 40 years together, one amicably to go into retirement, the other with bitter anger toward his partner for depriving him of his profession and putting his life and career in mothballs long before he was ready, despite the fact he was 74 years old.” Simon had one concern, though: “Would the story of these two ancient warhorses be of any interest to anyone?”

That idea became The Sunshine Boys, which premiered on Broadway in 1972 to rave reviews, later adapted into a film that won George Burns an Oscar for playing Al Lewis, the partner who happily embraced his golden years. (Walter Matthau played Al’s disgruntled partner Willy Clark.) Simon may have worried that no one would see a show about two old guys, but he unwittingly helped create the template for the geezer buddy comedy that remains with us to this day. If anything, it’s grown in popularity over the last few years.

The latest entry is The Last Laugh, a Netflix film that stars Chevy Chase as a crusty old talent manager and Richard Dreyfuss as his former client, who is coaxed into restarting his stand-up career a half-century after walking away from the spotlight.

I haven’t seen The Last Laugh yet, but the trailer sells the film as a typical old-guy comedy: A lot of the humor (and presumably, some of the pathos) comes from the notion that they’re senior citizens trying to do youthful things like buy weed and date. What was once considered a potentially un-commercial idea is now its own little cottage industry, with movies like The Bucket List, Last Vegas and A Walk in the Woods all proving to be at least modest box-office successes. How did we get from there to here?

Though primarily a comedy, The Sunshine Boys sought to shed light on growing old. As theater scholar Ruby Cohn once noted of the play, “Out of the public eye, old age is dramatized as dirty, demeaning, confusing and utterly lonely. Yet Simon also makes it funny, so that we laugh with a sympathy that the selfish old souls scarcely deserve.” Al Lewis and Willy Clark are in their twilight, but they’re still competitive and petty — they’re not your lovable grandpa handing out hard candy.

The success of The Sunshine Boys inspired other filmmakers to focus on the elderly, too, putting geezers in similarly unexpected scenarios. 1979’s Going in Style, which was written and directed by a pre-Beverly Hills Cop Martin Brest, starred Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg as three New York roommates who, with very little else in their lives, decide to break up the monotony by doing something very much out of character: Rob a bank. Like The Sunshine Boys, Going in Style focused on the despair that accompanies aging, but its laughs derived less from character dynamics than from our presumed shock that gray-hairs would do something so outrageous. The film’s original trailer is instructive in how Warner Bros. sold Going in Style — all the jokes are about the fact that it’s old dudes in a crime flick:  

From here on out, Hollywood continued to spotlight the elderly, memorably in the Oscar-winning 1981 drama On Golden Pond (based on Ernest Thompson’s play), but the geezer buddy comedy enjoyed two mid-1980s highpoints with Cocoon and Tough Guys. The former, from Splash director Ron Howard, put its aging characters in the realm of the sci-fi film, chronicling a group of retirees who learn that a nearby pool that contains an alien presence allows them to regain their youth. Don Ameche won an Oscar as one of the retirement-home denizens as Cocoon offered a gentler, bittersweet look at mortality. But Cocoon’s success was hardly certain: In an interview with The New York Times around the film’s release, Howard commented that the studio didn’t want to lean too hard on the fact that the movie featured senior citizens, preferring that the publicity focus on the sci-fi elements. (“We jokingly refer to it as Close Encounters on Golden Pond,” Howard said in the piece.)

Cocoon was a hit, in part, because it came out at a time when John Hughes movies and other youth-centric films were staples. But the get-off-my-lawn attitude was even more palpable in Tough Guys, which starred Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas as crusty bank robbers released from prison after 30 years. They return to civilian life only to discover that everything has changed and they hate it. This 1986 comedy, which isn’t very good and alarmingly reactionary, weaponized a key tenet in many geezer buddy pictures: The kids these days can’t hold a candle to us old guys. Melancholy notions of mortality and irrelevance are pushed to the side while Lancaster and Douglas prove what virile bad-asses they are. (There’s a constant refrain in Tough Guys that they’re the only “real men” in a world that’s gotten increasingly wussified. These crooks were on the lookout for snowflakes long before it became a thing.)

Tough Guys’ sourness was sweetened a few years later by Grumpy Old Men, probably the most iconic entry in this craggy subgenre. Ironically, when Matthau starred in The Sunshine Boys, he was about 25 years younger than Burns, although they were meant to be about the same age. In his review, New York Times critic Vincent Canby mentioned, “Mr. Matthau is so good playing old men, we may never know when he finally becomes one.” Turns out, he could be a pretty amusing old guy: He and frequent onscreen partner Jack Lemmon starred in Grumpy Old Men, playing childhood buddies whose longtime rivalry finds a fresh new battleground when they compete for the affections of the same beautiful professor (Ann-Margret).

Critics were lukewarm to Grumpy Old Men, but it was one of 1993’s surprise hits, clearly tapping into a fondness for Matthau and Lemmon, who had previously been in comedy classics like The Odd Couple. But it wasn’t just nostalgia that helped attract audiences: Grumpy Old Men portrayed aging as, largely, pretty adorable and something worth building a whole feel-good comedy around. The characters’ travails, despite some melancholy circumstances involving dead children and divorce, are mostly presented as funny and harmless, lacking the darker underpinnings of a Sunshine Boys. Just watch this trailer — they’re just so cute, complete with the har-har use of “I’m Too Sexy” on the soundtrack:

Two years later, Grumpier Old Men proved just as successful, cementing the fact that there was a market for geriatric buddy comedies. A movie like Clint Eastwood’s Space Cowboys — old astronauts go back into orbit — capitalized on the trend, but even more successful was 2007’s The Bucket List. Jack Nicholson played a billionaire named Edward who meets Carter (Morgan Freeman), when they’re both in the hospital with terminal cancer. Edward decides to help Carter fulfill his bucket list, which requires them going around the world while engaging in plenty of male bonding. The Bucket List is sentimental but honest about how men view their lives as a series of accomplishments — when maybe they should focus on more emotional and personal goals.

The Bucket List was part of a wave of comedies about aging or middle-aged men trying to find their place in an uncertain world — don’t forget Wild Hogs and Old Dogs, although, really, you should, because they’re bad — and it segued nicely with a period when older actors were trying to remain relevant. Just as action films like Taken and The Expendables found work for graying movie stars, while catering to aging fans who preferred actors they’d grown up with, so too did the geezer buddy comedy find its commercial niche. Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Kevin Kline and Freeman palled around in Last Vegas. Robert Redford and Nick Nolte went on a hike in A Walk in the Woods. Freeman (again!), Michael Caine and Alan Arkin remade Going in Style. Douglas (again!) and Arkin (again!) costarred in the Golden Globe-winning Netflix series The Kominsky Method, about a retired actor and his longtime agent.

The popularity of these films and series isn’t mystifying. They star actors audiences have loved for a long time. And while Hollywood trends come and go, the industry remains committed to films for and about young people — which creates a market for movies that offer other perspectives. On its face, that’s a good thing: Aging is something we all have to face, no matter how much it terrifies us. A film like The Last Laugh at least acknowledges that people grow old, something that’s not really front of mind in Avengers: Infinity War or Deadpool 2. But that acknowledgement is often brushed aside with a patronizing smirk, treating old age like a cute condition — like when a puppy can’t understand it’s seeing itself in the mirror. Those poor old geezers, these movies seem to be saying, they’re still trying to act like real people

This isn’t how the genre started. Literary critic Edythe M. McGovern once said of Neil Simon’s play The Sunshine Boys that it carried “a pervasive sense of desperation … not because we must all experience a ‘final curtain’ at the end of our play, but because so often there is no applause for actors who do not have the grace to quit the stage before they have grown old.” She meant that as a compliment, suggesting that the original geezer buddy comedy knew in its bones that that there’s something sad and urgent about this subject matter — the terror inherent in knowing that, because the Grim Reaper was close, perhaps it was time to put affairs into order.

None of us want to think we’ll shrivel away into irrelevance, feebleness, mediocrity and infirmity. But if we live long enough, those fates await us. Whether it’s Cocoon or The Bucket List or The Last Laugh, these films have tried to laugh off that reality in one way or another. What’s often obvious, though — and unintentionally bittersweet — is that they’re only kidding themselves.