A comedic piffle elevated by smart dialogue and a terrific cast, House Calls is easily one of the best romantic comedies of the ’70s. Charley Nichols (Walter Matthau) is a recently widowed surgeon who saves a patient, English divorcée Ann Atkinson (Glenda Jackson), from the incompetent ministrations of Charley’s senile boss, Dr. Amos Willoughby (Art Carney). As Charley endures the repercussions of treating another physician’s patient without permission, he also savors his newfound swinger’s lifestyle until he realizes that Ann has gotten under his skin. Ann’s thorny intelligence not only rouses Charley from his midlife-crisis stupor but also emboldens him to confront Amos, who has gotten so addled he’s endangering the lives of patients.
Despite murky literary origins (four writers worked on the script, which was adapted from a French novel), House Calls is brisk and smooth, throwing credible obstacles between the protagonists and their inevitable happily-ever-after destiny; when it’s really crackling, the movie comes close to the frothy frizz of classic romantic comedy from the ’30s, but with a modern, liberated-woman spin. And though some might question the casting of Matthau as a romantic lead, since overpowering handsomeness was never one of his virtues, the filmmakers weave Matthau’s wiseass humor into the persona of his character, depicting how easily he charms every woman he meets. Jackson matches Matthau’s pithiness perfectly, offering a feminist complement to his macho swagger, and the filmmakers do a fine job of articulating Charley’s realization that companionship trumps casual sex.
Watching Matthau and Jackson work together is extremely pleasurable, because they’re both so confident and loose; in particular, their physical-comedy scene of trying to figure out whether a couple can copulate while each has one foot on the floor is a delightful demonstration of their vanity-free commitment to meeting any scene’s demands. Carney, at the peak of his terrific late-career revival, is funny and formidable as a man clinging to power because letting go would involve admitting he’s elderly. Additionally, several supporting players contribute fine work: Richard Benjamin gets in a few zingers as Charley’s younger colleague, Candice Azzara is droll as a pragmatic gold digger from Noo Yawk, and the always-entertaining Dick O’Neill is memorably exasperated as a hospital executive doomed to clean up messes created by Carney’s character.
House Calls: GROOVY