The Out of Towners is notable as the first feature that mega-successful playwright/screenwriter Simon wrote directly for the big screen; previously, the comedy kingpin adapted such hits as Barefoot in the Park (1967) and The Odd Couple (1968) from his own plays. The good news is that Simon has a blast taking advantage of opportunities presented by the cinematic medium, so The Out of Towners starts in Ohio, zooms to Boston, lands in New York, and covers dozens of locations. The bad news is that the piece isn’t especially funny—too often, frenetic activity substitutes for inspiration. That said, the premise is amusing, since the picture aims to depict the worst trip to New York any couple has ever experienced. This is Simon in pure-farce mode, not touchy-feely Simon.
Jack Lemmon stars as George Kellerman, an Ohio businessman summoned to Manhattan for a job interview. While he and his wife, Gwen (Sandy Dennis), fly from Ohio to New York, George shares his grand, OCD-fueled plans for a night of dinner and dancing before acing the interview in the morning. However, Gwen’s enthusiasm is muted—she’s perfectly happy raising the couple’s kids in the Midwest. Then comes a series of calamities: New York gets fogged in, so the couple’s plane is rerouted to Boston; catching trains is a nightmare; New York is gripped by a transit strike; the Kellermans’ hotel reservation is cancelled; muggers prey on the couple; and so on. About half of the problems that Simon contrives represent clever satire, and about half represent narrative desperation. For instance, George’s stubborn insistence to remain inside a police car while the officers at the wheel chase criminals is an absurdly stupid decision. Only Lemmon’s innate likability ensures that George remains more or less palatable, and it helps that Lemmon is virtually peerless at playing frazzled schmucks. Sadly, Dennis can’t come close to matching her costar’s energy, coming across as bland and mousy until the latter half of the picture, when her character suddenly (and unbelievably) grows a spine.
Compounding the inequity of the leading performance is director Arthur Hiller’s grubby camerawork. Although he paces scenes beautifully, Hiller shoots the picture with the dark, handheld textures of a crime movie; as does Quincy Jones’ weirdly intense score, the look of the film makes some scenes that should be humorous seem frightening. Ultimately, however, the real blame for the project’s overall mediocrity must fall on Simon, who sacrifices character reality for silly gags at regular intervals. Nonetheless, The Out of Towners gained enough stature to warrant a remake in 1999. In the second version of the story, Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn play the titular travelers.
The Out of Towners: FUNKY