"Grumpy Old Men" stars the classic comedy duo of Jack Lemon ("John") and Walter Matthau ("Max"). The subtitle of this picture is "A fifty year fight." Max and John live next door to each other in the small frozen town of Waubeshaw, Minnesota. These two grumpy old men frequently engage in a battle of insults, practical jokes, and trash talk. It is often crude and always irreverent. As the show opens, you see John trying to avoid being recognized by an IRS agent, when Max tells the agent that John is a "low life, egg sucker" who roams around male strip clubs starting fights. One day in the pharmacy they engage in a one upping conversation regarding their old man health problems, each implicitly claiming to be tougher than the other. When they do speak relatively civilly with each other, it is generally about how friends of theirs have recently died. They are both focused on the fact that death is coming closer as they advance in age. You get a very strong sense that they feel like the best parts of their lives are behind them.
On a first watch, you just laugh out loud with the these two grouchy old men taking each other to pieces. But, if you watch it another time or two, you catch a more profound meaning. Their rivalry intensifies when a red haired beauty named Ariel Truax (Ann Margret) moves into their neighborhood. She is a wil-o-the-wisp kind of woman that has all of the passion for life that John and Max lack. She rides her snowmobile around the neighborhood in the middle of the night like a bat out of hell. She sculpts and paints eccentric artistic creations. She comes out of the sauna and rolls around in the snow in her bathing suit, and then goes back in, squealing the entire time. She tries to get to know John and Max by opening their mail without permission--but gets away with it because she is beautiful. John and Max are fascinated by her and constantly watching her activities from their windows. When John is caught doing this, however, he protests that he was only watching the squirrels. At first, both men claim that they are not interested in her. It is easier to claim that you don't want something than to admit that maybe you want it but can't have it. John and Max's friend Chuck calls them "bullshitters" and says that they are both just plain afraid--which is obvious to the viewer.
Ariel instantly takes a liking to John. Max tries to take his shot with her also. She likes Max as a friend, but is interested in more than friendship with John. In one of her early conversations with John, we learned that John and Max had been best friends as children. Their 50-year feud began over a girl named May, who John had eventually married and later divorced. (The film implies May was a cheater.) Max had been interested in May too, and they had competed for her affection. Max was intensely upset with John for taking May from him. His bruised ego had never healed. Max's lengthy marriage to a good woman named Amy (deceased) had done nothing to abate the anger he felt toward John. Yet, in an almost perverse way, you kind of get the sense that John and Max are all that each other has anymore, as their wives and many friends have passed on.
Both John and Max are brought to life in their competition for Ariel as they perceive a joy worth living for that might be within their reach. However, after a day of intense feuding where Max brings up the subject of May again and says that John had taken Ariel away from him the same way he had done with May, John resolves to let Max win this time. Ariel comes to John's house with a beautiful painting she had created of snow angels as a gift for John. He refuses to accept this painting and tells Ariel that they should not see each other anymore. He says that, unlike Ariel, he is not afraid to be alone. She tells him that she is not afraid to be alone but she prefers to participate in life rather than watching it from a window. She says the biggest regrets we have in life are the risks we don't take. That's a hard pill to swallow for some mid-singles like John who have taken a chance on love and experienced the pain of betrayal. It is a risk because betrayal is a possible outcome. However, that point makes a deep impression on John and he repeats the advice to his daughter Melanie (Daryl Hannah) who is going through a divorce.
John's father (Burgess Meredith) similarly tells him that "the first 90 years go by pretty fast" and "one day you wake up and realize you aren't 81 anymore." He tells John that what really matters are the experiences of life and advises him to live it fully. When John and Max are in a fist fight over Ariel he breaks it up and says, "don't make me have to separate you two again," followed by, "damn kids!" I guess to a 90-year-old man, 70-year-old men seem like kids. Perhaps age is a matter of perspective.
On Christmas Eve, Max's son Jacob convinces him to find John and make up with him for Christmas. He finds John at Slippery's Tavern, where he has gone to have a beer after some drama at his own house with his soon to be former son-in-law. Max attempts to thank John for fixing his beloved fishing rod, and John mistakenly believes Max is thanking him for bowing out of the competition for Ariel's affection. He asks Max, "do you love her?" When they finally figure out their miscommunication, John tells Max that he gave up Ariel for him and leaves in a huff when Max denies it. Max realizes that he doesn't want to win that way.
On his way home, Max finds John collapsed in the snow from a heart attack. He says, "Are you dead?" John answers, "Not yet, but I don't want to die looking at your ugly face." Max calls for an ambulance and John goes to the hospital on Christmas Eve. When Max shows up at the hospital, he wants to go in and see John and he is asked, "Are you family or friend?" He pauses, not quite knowing how to answer that question, but eventually comes up with "friend." By doing so, Max acknowledged something he had told himself was untrue for 50 years.
Christmas morning, Max goes to see Ariel and informs her of what had happened to John and asks her if what John said about bowing out was true. Ariel then shows up at the hospital and tells John that her husband died at Easter and if he leaves her at Christmas she won't have any holidays left to celebrate, since she has never been a big fan of turkey. John recovers and his relationship with Ariel does also.
"Grumpy Old Men" has important messages for mid-singles. It is fun to watch just because of the irreverent humor. But it has a more profound meaning than that. It shows the foolishness of the games we sometimes play with love--and the importance of authenticity and vulnerability. It shows the importance of friendship in making a meaningful life. It shows the importance of taking risks in order to have the great rewards of life. Most of all, it shows that it is better to live life fully and passionately like Ariel than to watch it from your window and believe it has pass you by.