“You know what you are? You’re a 73-year-old putz.”
When I was a teenager, I knew Walter Matthau as the dude from the Grumpy Old Men movies with Jack Lemmon. He was one of the best, most reliable actors to go to when a movie needed a hilarious, cantankerous old man. When he was cast as Mr Wilson in a big screen version of Dennis the Menace, it made perfect sense. It turns out, Matthau was so old, he was getting into his third decade of playing hilarious, cantankerous old men when I was watching him in the 90s. Because I just watched The Sunshine Boys, a movie made in 1975, with Matthau cast as a hilarious, cantankerous old man.
From the old days of vaudeville, right through the 60s, the Sunshine Boys were a hit comedy duo for more than 40 years. But after a falling out over a decade ago, the two have not spoken a word to each other. Now Willie (Walter Matthau) is a struggling New York actor, trying to book low rent TV commercials, with his put upon nephew and agent, Ben (Richard Benjamin). While his Sunshine Boys ex-partner, Al (George Burns), is living the quiet life in New Jersey with his grown daughter and young grandchildren.
When a television network tries to book the duo for a tribute show, it’s up to Ben to try to put an end to the silent feud between the two old men. Willie has always resented Al for retiring and ending their long run, while Al initially has no interest in putting up with Willie’s abuse. But the idea of performing is too much for them to resist, and soon, the Sunshine Boys are back together rehearsing, arguing and doing their best to give Ben a heart attack.
I’ve seen Walter Matthau be funny plenty of times before. I’ve seen him deliver great dramatic performances before. But there’s something about Willie Clark in The Sunshine Boys that is like no other Matthau performance. Willie is loud, and obnoxious, and rude, and mean. He’s also sadly affecting, a little tragic and vulnerable. On top of that, the character is really, really funny. It’s a rare balance where I often found the character infuriating and annoying, but also totally engrossing and entertaining.
On top of that, there’s also a pretty amazing performance from Burns as well. So good, it snagged him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. His role isn’t as big or as flashy as Matthau’s, but George Burns makes the absolute most of what he’s given. While Willie is all piss, vinegar and bluster, Al has a quiet dignity. He also has a few senior moments that could have so easily been cheap and easy. Yet somehow, Burns adds just enough sadness to make the jokes a little more real and a lot more funny.