Matthau-starring, Lemmon-directed Character Study Of Old And Young Age



Note: Given the dearth of images available of the actual film, this review will use various production photos and promotional material, including the cover image above, as visual context.

After their initial pairing in Billy Wilder’s 1966 comedy The Fortune Cookie, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau went on to appear in nine subsequent films together over the next 32 years, seven of which they co-starred. Solidified as a team in the public consciousness from the wildly popular filming of the Neil Simon play The Odd Couple in 1968, theirs was an unusual partnership in that both had developed and would continue to build on careers that had no need of the other, yet worked wonderfully together. Lemmon equally capable of broad comedy, most famously in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), and stark drama, his portrait of a co-dependent alcoholic in Blake Edwards’s Days of Wine and Roses (1962) one of the finest in American film, the actor could achieve both in a single, equal parts pathetic and endearing donning of a “junior executive” model hat in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960). The stage-trained Matthau had initially played movie villains, bull-whipping Burt Lancaster in The Kentuckian (1955), kick-starting a US Cavalry-Indian Nations war in the Kirk Douglas Western The Indian Fighter (ibid.), and beating the crap out of Elvis in Michael Curtiz’s King Creole (1958), before making films as varied as Lonely are the Brave (1962), Charade (1963), and Fail Safe (1964) better by his mere presence. Together, the multi-faceted actors created a chemistry that undoubtedly stemmed from their shared facility with the widest variety of roles and acting choices.

Neither traditional leading men, both could head a cast or play supporting roles with equal aplomb, but in 1971 Walter Matthau had yet to carry a film as he would over the next few years in succession of Charley Varrick (1973), The Laughing Policeman (ibid.), and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), before breaking into the box office big time with The Sunshine Boys (1975) and The Bad News Bears (1976). The time of the slouching, jowly, hangdog lead had come, wearing world-weary heroism like a rumpled suit, and it was possibly Matthau’s pal Lemmon who recognized it first in the latter’s sole directorial effort, 1971’s Kotch. Playing two decades his own senior, and virtually indistinguishable from the ageless characters he played before and after, Matthau’s complex portrayal of the septuagenarian title role, as guided by Lemmon’s naturalistic direction, mines comedy and drama in keeping with the protean nature of Lemmon and Matthau’s respectively individual (and individualistic) screen talents.

71-year-old Joseph P. Kotcher (Matthau) lives for his toddler grandson in suburban California, a simple self-directive at varied odds — not necessarily in order of importance — with a mothers-only (and by implication grandfathers-excluding) sign at a community kids pool, an exasperated and exasperating daughter-in-law (Felicia Farr), a beleaguered yet sympathetic son (Charles Aidman), and a troubled, in-trouble teenage babysitter (Deborah Winters). Charming, talkative, and irreverent — encyclopedic in knowledge and breadth of interest yet clumsy and unconcerned with the practical and everyday — Kotch is well-named both in person and spirit through his self-created third act of life that F. Scott Fitzgerald claimed Americans never attain.

One could go on with the plot description in greater detail — particularly the film’s own third act when Kotch provides a home for the unwed soon-to-be mother in remote Palm Springs — but Kotch as a character study is more concerned with this stubborn individualist who sidesteps the many traps culturally imposed on aging. Escaping retirement home internment for the open road, the bizarre domestic situation Kotch finds himself in — possibly because he feels guilty about having blown the whistle on the unborn child’s conception during her babysitting employment? — is made believable, sympathetic, and hilarious by a performance whose eccentricity is rooted in the character and whose presentation is grounded in the world he inhabits.

Lemmon directing Matthau, holding the toddler twins who played his grandson.

Director cameoing at the outset of Kotch’s journey from his son’s home, almost unrecognizable under a face-covering hat — snoozing on the bus next to his talkative star — Jack Lemmon’s roadside view of seemingly bland American detail —bars, diners, bowling alleys, gas stations — provides the perfect counterpoint to Walter Matthau’s verbal stream of unending, apparently trivial observation. But neither is the American road bland nor Kotch’s observation of it trivial: rather, over 45 years later, what one is struck with is how marvelous it all appears and how wonderful he makes it sound. Kotch is interested and that’s what makes Kotch so interesting: 114 minutes of 1971 life provide a memory-album snapshot showing in-the-moment moments — flora in a park, endless choices in a grocery store, the decorative and combustible possibilities of bowling pins — that are never so keenly felt at the beginning (as for Kotch’s grandson, along with the young mother and her unborn child) as they potentially can be at the end. Like sons and daughters-in-law, retirement home officials, shopkeepers, store owners, and possibly us watching the film (or writing this review), it’s always the middle that gives us the most difficulty.

Promotional photograph, taken from an early scene of Kotch (1971).

Marvin Hamlisch’s score, Richard Kline’s photography, and John Paxton’s script contribute heavily to this deceptively effortless joie de vivre, but most of the credit should rightly go to the director and star. Audio commentators Lee Gambin and Emma Westwood bring a highly enthusiastic and enjoyable level of Aussie love to this uniquely American film, particularly drawing connections to other films released in 1971. Beyond being the best visual presentation of the film heretofore, Kino Lorber re-mastering the original camera negative from a new 4K scan for this Blu-ray, this true-to-character slice-of-life may be worth owning for Kotch’s presumably high re-visititability factor. Like a gathering of old friends long-gone, a Walter Matthau-Jack Lemmon team-up on any level remains compelling for its subtle and inviting level of comforting familiarity.

Images used in this review, again, are used only as visual context for the film. Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a Blu-ray review copy.