Walter Matthau delivered a series of wonderfully entertaining performances in the ’70s, his rapscallion charm stemming from the ability to hide characters’ warmhearted souls behind a disagreeable persona. For much of the decade, watching Matthau play men who bitch and whine their way toward doing the right thing was a source of endless pleasure. To his credit, however, Matthau wasn’t averse to deviating from his signature style. For instance, Matthau took something of a leap with Kotch by playing not only an overtly nice character but also by playing a senior; after all, the actor was merely middle-aged at the time of filming. And while Matthau scored an Academy Award nomination for his trouble (eventually losing Best Actor to Gene Hackman’s star-making turn in The French Connection), one would be hard-pressed to describe Kotch as a seminal Matthau project. Kotch is forgettable and sentimental, so the picture’s only real claim to fame is that it was the only feature directed by actor Jack Lemmon, Matthau’s frequent onscreen sparring partner. Lemmon’s filmmaking seems competent, though it’s hard to tell how much of the picture’s craftsmanship sprang from Lemmon’s imagination and how much was the result of solid work by Lemmon’s experienced crew. The shortcomings of Kotch are not related to execution. Rather, they stems from the underlying material, because the story—which screenwriter John Paxton adapted from a novel by Katharine Topkins—simply isn’t very interesting.
The movie’s narrative concerns Joseph Kotcher, a likeable old man living with his son’s family. “Kotch” is enamored of his very young grandson, Duncan, but Kotch’s daughter-in-law wants the old man relocated to a retirement home. In the film’s most poignant sequence, Kotch realizes he’s not wanted, so he hits the road in order to find a new living arrangement. Not long afterward, the film settles into a sitcom-style dynamic: Kotch befriends Erica (Deborah Winters), a young pregnant woman. Although the film avoids any suggestion of May-December romance, the relationship is predictable—Kotch needs someone to nurture, Erica needs a guardian, blah-blah-blah. (It’s also distracting that the still-vital Matthau spends the whole movie hidden behind glasses, old-age makeup, and a white wig.) Filmed with a lush glow and served on a bed of gooey music by Marvin Hamlisch, Kotch is pleasant enough to watch. Furthermore, it’s hard to criticize a story that celebrates compassion, tenderness, and the value of senior citizens. Alas, good intentions only go so far. Especially seeing as how bolder filmmakers working in the same era were able to generate such surprising senior-themed stories as Harry and Tonto (1974) and Going in Style (1979), the unthreatening narrative of Kotch seems bland beyond belief when compared those films. As a result, only Matthau’s innate charisma and the film’s upscale production values give Kotch any real distinction.