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Wilder: Buddy Buddy (1981)

One of the side effects of the rise of sex comedies in the late 70s and early 80s was a return to physical comedy across the board. At heart, films like Animal House were slapstick comedies, and not only did they impart that slapstick sensibility to comedies that ostensibly had very little to do with sex, but they generated a new kind of sexualised slapstick that had the ability to make even the most staid slapstick setups feel like sex comedies by proxy. In some ways, Billy Wilder’s final film, Buddy Buddy, is one of those sex comedies by proxy, which is perhaps why it feels both timely and weirdly old-fashioned all at the same time. Drawing his inspiration from Francis Veber’s play The Contract, Wilder presents another iteration of the by-now-familiar Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau duo, in the guise of Trabucco (Matthau), a mobster holed up in a hotel to take out a hit on a witness due to appear in the courtroom across the road, and Victor Clooney (Jack Lemmon), the mumbling, bumbling, abject divorcee who keeps getting in his way at every turn. While Wilder has more room to display his directorial flourish in the outside interludes, most of the action takes place within this single hotel room, creating a theatrical kind of intimacy that alternately recalls a play and a single-cam sitcom. As might be expected, Matthau and Lemmon sink into their roles quite naturally – Matthau is impassive, while Lemmon plays an oversharer who’s quite comfortable in one-sided conversations – but their rapport in this film is more physical and plastic than in any other, partly because for the comedy to work Matthau has to more or less play it straight and condense himself to a sufficiently brooding physical presence for Lemmon to blithely bounce off, which perhaps explains why it feels like one of Lemmon’s most elastically contorted performances as well. After the film was released, Wilder noted that it would have made more sense to cast a serious dramatic actor in Trabucco’s role, and while there is something strained about Matthau here, the film also captures everything cartoony about his screen presence at the same time, in one of the purest examples of Matthau simply playing Matthau, or Matthau’s star image. At the same time, Matthau’s presence very much sets the stage for the physical plasticity that defines the film, as he and Lemmon build off each other’s bodies with a slapstick intensity that imparts an intensely sensual, visceral and sexual energy to the rest of the film in turn, culminating with a visit to the sex clinic where Lemmon’s former wife has fled to escape their monotonous married life. Of course, the relationship between Lemmon and Matthau remains as circumscribed, homosocially, as it ever was, but there’s nevertheless a new kind of sensuality to the way in which they – and the film – relish the relaxation of censorship in the intervening decade, indulging in expletives, sexual innuendoes and crude physical self-presentation in a way that wasn’t really possible in The Odd Couple and would feel old hat by the time Grumpy Old Men came around. And that gives the film an astringent, ascerbic, brittle energy that’s not always easy to connect with, but quite unique at the most unexpected moments, thanks in part to one of the best scores of Lalo Schifrin's oeuvre, which almost single-handedly also turns this into something of a mock-Bond exercise as well. If Billy Wilder started his career with a somewhat tasteless sex comedy, The Major and the Minor, then there’s something fitting about this curious swansong, even if it’s not one of his most consistent efforts.

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