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The 36 Dramatic Situations: Grumpy Old Men (1993) and Rivalry of Kinsmen

By  · Published on August 19th, 2010

This article is part of our 36 Dramatic Situations series.

For 36 days straight, we’ll be exploring the famous 36 Dramatic Situations by presenting a film that exemplifies each one. From family killing family to prisoners in need of asylum, we brush off the 19th-century list in order to remember that it’s still incredibly relevant today.

Whether you’re seeking a degree in Literature, love movies, or just love seeing things explode, our feature should have something for everyone. If it doesn’t, please don’t hide a dead fish in our backseat.

Part 11 of the 36-part series takes a look at “Rivalry of Kinsmen” with Grumpy Old Men.

The Synopsis

Elder gentlemen John Gustafson and Max Goldman have been competitive frienemies since childhood. The two have been enjoying a relatively peaceful retirement as next-door neighbors and habitual fisherman; that is until Ariel – a rambunctious and attractive free-spirited woman – moves across the street from the two, at which point John and Max become equally smitten and further ignite their long-time willingness to battle one another for the top prize.

The Situation

“Rivalry of Kinsmen” – This situation involves two persons of relation, or friends, fighting over an object or the affection of another, whether that be a love interest or of another kin.

Grumpy Old Men treads the non-blood relation variety even though the two main characters interact with one another very similarly to that of siblings. They’ve known one another for most of their lives and their bitterness towards each other is almost always playfully endearing. They’re constantly at each other’s throats, but seem reluctant to part because that’s just how they are and appear to like it that way, even when they’re not fighting for the attention of a common female companion.

The Movie

Grumpy Old Men reunited one of the best onscreen comic teams of their time in Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, probably most famously in their pairing in 1968’s The Odd Couple. The two teamed up a few times more in the 1970s and once again in 1981 for Billy Wilder’s final picture Buddy Buddy, but didn’t headline a comedy together again until this film in 1993 – and even after nearly a decade apart the magic hadn’t at all faded.

The chemistry on display between the two as they each try and one-up each other, back-and-forth throughout the entire film is unmistakably the work of two seasoned comic actors who have built a familiarity with one another over the course of numerous pictures together, and that familiarity of not only them to each other but of the audience with them together adds to the history of the characters that we’re supposed to buy into. It’s much easier for us to believe two men as lifelong friends if we’re watching two men who we’ve seen together many times over the course of tens of years.

What takes Grumpy Old Men over the edge is the character work of the supporting actors, with Burgess Meredith being the standout as the obscene Grandpa Gustafson who doesn’t just steal scenes, he takes them hostage and threatens to shoot if they try and run away. There simply just isn’t a dull moment when he’s spouting metaphors and giving advice. Even the outtakes that play during the end credits can’t run from him.

Over the course of the next five years the two would appear together four more times – almost as many times as they appeared together prior to Grumpy Old Men over fifteen years – which included a sequel to this film and to their other more famous pairing in The Odd Couple. While Grumpier Old Men was certainly a more than decent sequel (thanks largely to more Meredith material) Grumpy Old Men most exemplified the comic chops of both actors as they came into their twilight years, with just enough heart to complement their tug of war over Ann-Margaret and fishing superiority.

Bonus Examples: Little Giants, Becket, The Ten Commandments

Check out our entire series of 36 Dramatic Situations, 36 Movies.

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