by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Billy Wilder
Cast: Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Ron Rich, Judi West
My Rating: 5/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 96%

PLOT: A crooked lawyer persuades his brother-in-law to feign a serious injury.

Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie reminds me of what it might be like to watch Jerry Lee Lewis play “Chopsticks.”  You sense it’s being done as well as it possibly can be done, but you wonder why it’s being done at all.  C’mon, man, let’s hear “Great Balls of Fire!”

Notable for being the first of twelve films Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau starred in together, The Fortune Cookie tells the story of a hapless TV cameraman, Harry Hinkle (Lemmon), who is covering a Cleveland Browns football game from the sidelines.  A burly punt returner accidentally runs him over during a play and knocks Harry out cold.  While he recuperates in a hospital bed, his thoroughly unscrupulous brother-in-lawyer, Willie (Matthau), concocts a very modern-sounding plan: Harry will fake serious injuries in the hospital so Willie can work his magic with the insurance company and get a big payout.  Harry demurs at first but is enticed to go along when he finds out his ex-wife, for whom he still carries a torch, is very interested in assisting with his recuperation from his “serious” injuries.

Meanwhile, the poor football player who knocked him down, Luther (Ron Rich), is wracked with guilt over the damage he thinks he’s caused.  He pitches in to buy Harry a motorized wheelchair and offers to assist with his rehab back at home.  This gnaws at Harry’s conscience.  Things don’t get any better when he’s brought a lunch of Chinese food at the hospital, and the fortune inside his fortune cookie bears a grim warning…

There’s nothing wrong with The Fortune Cookie that a rewrite or some editing couldn’t have fixed.  That might be considered sacrilege, considering the script was penned by Wilder himself and his legendary writing partner, I.A.L. Diamond, but in watching the film, I was struck by how many scenes involved a semi-static camera just watching people talk, and talk, and talk.  I don’t mind a lot of dialogue in a scene when the characters have something to say, or when the story is being driven forward.  But here, we usually get a five-minute scene when a two-minute scene could have done the job just fine.

Take one scene in particular that almost had me literally nodding off, when Harry’s ex-wife, Sandy (Judi West), has returned home to help with Harry’s rehab.  Harry is still feeling guilty about the sham he’s perpetrating, but he’s so besotted with Sandy that he’s willing to keep up the pretense just to keep her around.  They catch up a little, blah blah blah, he says he never threw away his ring, blah blah blah, she dumps out her purse looking for her ring, blah blah blah, he puts on a little music, he’s happy, she’s happy, and <snoorrrrrrre.>

I could list any number of films, including some of Wilder’s other films, where other characters talked for even longer than Harry and Sandy, but they were so much more interesting!  What happened here?  What went wrong?  Even in the scenes where Willie, the huckster, is rattling off his grand plans and needling the insurance company attorneys, Matthau just comes off as a two-bit hack that no sane person would pay any attention to.

I’m not saying he must be likable, that dreaded word.  There are movies that are very, very good and that contain nothing BUT unlikable characters. (Anyone wanna watch The Godfather?) But here, something is off with the tone.  When I wasn’t bored, I was inflamed with distaste for what Harry was being forced to do, both by Willie and by his own hormones.

The movie does have one saving grace.  The comeuppance, when it, er, comes up, is brought about with the kind of shock comedy scene that Mel Brooks might have loved.  I don’t want to spoil it, but it features the kind of language that would have been right at home in Blazing Saddles.  When I got over the shock of what I had just heard, I sat back in admiration and smiled, and thought to myself, a little ruefully, “Now what would this movie have been like if it had been this nervy all the way through, instead of just here at the end?”

But The Fortune Cookie even mucks up the ending with an “epilogue” scene that’s so gratuitously manipulative, I wouldn’t be surprised if it had been tacked on by the studio who demanded a happy ending, or at least a happier ending.  If the movie had earned it, I’d have been on board, but everything that came before was so humdrum that it felt super-cheesy.

Billy Wilder’s résumé reads like the Pixar catalog: one hit after the other with only a couple of rare misses.  Double Indemnity.  The Lost Weekend.  Sunset Boulevard.  Ace in the Hole.  Stalag 17.  Sabrina.  Witness for the Prosecution.  Some Like It Hot.  The Apartment.  Even One, Two, Three, which may not exactly be his finest moment, but at least it had James Cagney to liven things up.  I ask again: what happened here?  Where is the dynamite chemistry between Lemmon and Matthau that would become legendary in later films?  Where is the zaniness of Some Like It Hot or the earned pathos of The Apartment or the edginess of Ace in the Hole and Stalag 17?

According to the trivia section on IMDb, the opening football game sequences were filmed during an actual Vikings-Browns football game, which the Browns lost, at home, 27-17.  After watching this movie, I felt like those Cleveland fans must have felt: always glad to see my boys play, but man, it would have been WAY cooler if they had won.

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