Last night, I watched Neil Simon’s 1970 hit The Out-of-Towners, starring Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis. I had only the vaguest memory of seeing it when I was 6 years old. Strangely, I have a fairly clear memory of finding it very funny at that time. So it seemed like a good choice.
The Out-of-Towners Summary
The film is funny. It tells the story of George Kellerman and his wife Gwen. They are going to New York, where George is going to be interviewed for his dream job, which will move them from their quiet lives in Ohio with two young children to an exciting life in the big city. But things go wrong almost from the start.
Their flight is forced to land in Boston. Then, with some effort, they manage to get a train into New York. But once there, they can’t get a taxi, because there is a strike going on. So they walk to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where they find that their room has been given away. And so on. Somehow, George manages to make it to his interview and lands the job. But he decides not to take it; both he and Gwen have decided that they are happy with their lives in Ohio.
Writing and Rendering
I’ve never been a big Neil Simon fan. That’s not to say that I disliked his work. As I said, I liked this film when I was a kid. And I loved the film Murder by Death when I was younger. Today, I enjoy its companion film The Cheap Detective. But overall, Simon is just a dialog writer. And he’s pretty stylized. I really have to be in the mood.
A bigger issue is that most of his stuff is dated. And The Out-of-Towners certainly suffers from this. It’s kind of hard to imagine that people like this really existed. The sexism of George is really amazing. On the plane, both at the beginning and end of the film, we find Gwen pleading to be allowed a cup of coffee.
But on a deeper level, Gwen is a very strong character. How it is she puts up with George’s behavior is anyone’s guess — especially at the end of the film. But both of the characters are pretty typical of the insular world of Neil Simon.
Throughout The Out-of-Towners, George collects a list of everyone who he believes has harmed him. He is going to launch a major lawsuit if he manages to survive the night. But the truth is that almost everyone in the film is actually nice to the couple. For example, the guy managing lost luggage does everything he can, but their luggage is in Ohio. There’s nothing more he can do than he already has.
This is a recurring theme throughout the film. And the truth is that the film would only be about a half hour long if George weren’t so difficult. They could have just stayed at the Waldorf-Astoria lobby until 7:00 am, when it would have had a room for the couple (and the luggage would have been delivered at 8:00 am). But George insists upon acting like a child.
There is a nice moment in the film when George arrives at his interview on time and the person he’s meeting with says he’s amazed — that with the strike and the weather, he didn’t figure George would have been there. So all of George’s anxiety and histrionics was for nothing.
The performances by Lemmon and Dennis are outstanding. And it really made me wonder about the script for this. Obviously, by 1970, Neil Simon was a star. Otherwise, I doubt the script would have been shot. I can only imagine that the dialog lays there on the page. There is very little that is really funny all by itself, but the stars and the impressive supporting cast make it shine.
The Out-of-Towners was directed by Arthur Hiller, who just so happened to direct probably my favorite comedy ever, The In-Laws. He shot this film in a cinéma vérité style. This adds enormously the feeling of anxiety in the film, and ultimately to its comedic impact.
The score for the film, by Quincy Jones, is unusual. Its only real flaw is in being too good — too interesting. It is rare that the music in a film becomes so compelling that it takes me out of the film. But that happened once here. Just the same, Jones’ use of extreme dissonance also adds to the whole feeling of dread in The Out-of-Towners, which is so import to it.
Overall, The Out-of-Towners is one of the best things that Neil Simon ever wrote. I may be under-appreciating what he created on the page. Regardless, Arther Hiller and the rest of the gang that worked on it clearly understood what he was going for. At the time of its release, it stood as an excellent example of cutting edge comedy. Today, the edge is worn. But it still works remarkably well.