Jack Lemmon plays a TV cameraman knocked unconscious while filming a Cleveland Browns game. He’s unhurt, but his shyster brother-in-law, played by Walter Matthau, sues everyone involved.
Lemmon’s helpless schmuck character evokes his turn in The Apartment, also by director Billy Wilder. He resists Matthau’s scheme at first, but plays along to reconnect with his ex-wife, played by Judy West. West can’t match Shirley MacLaine’s innate charisma, making it harder to sympathise with Lemmon’s character.
But that’s okay, because Matthau steals the movie. We meet him in the hospital, puffing on a cigar. He taps his ashes into the water fountain, then—with a shifty eye up and down the corridor—runs the water to wash them away. It’s a terrific heightened performance ala James Cagney in Wilder’s One, Two, Three. As Matthau says while dreaming up the scheme, “By the time we’re done, we’ll have them begging for mercy.”
“Who is them?” asks Lemmon.
“That, I haven’t figured out yet,” replies Matthau without missing a beat, looking into the distance, his eyes glittering with dollar signs.
But there’s a dissonance between Matthau’s heightened satire and the subplot involving the football player who levelled Lemmon. It’s as though they’re in different movies. Ron Rich delivers an earnest performance as a man whose guilt pushes him to drink. His on-field performance suffers, and he’s benched. But this reductive arc feels manipulative and disingenuous when played alongside Matthau’s cartoonish scoundrel. Imagine Lemmon’s character from The Apartment wandering into One, Two, Three and you have a sense of the clashing sensibilities.
Committing to these disparate tones balloons the running time to over two hours. Wilder’s capable of crafting a tight film from either thread, but stitching them together doesn’t work. And reducing Lemmon’s character to a fulcrum leaves him little to do except react.
Still, Matthau shines. To pressure the insurance companies into settling, he cooks up a publicity stunt where the crowd at a Browns night game will light a match to support Lemmon. “Eighty-three-thousand matches,” he says, gazing off as though marvelling at his own brilliance. “I hope it doesn’t rain.”