The Out-of-Towners (1970)
Written by Neil Simon
Directed by Arthur Hiller
Sometimes you watch a film that makes you feel seen. While watching The Out-of-Towners, my wife and I turned to each other about 15 minutes into the picture and laughed with full recognition. The two people on screen were way too much like ourselves, making this one of the best comedy experiences we’ve had in a long time. It takes a lot of security in oneself to admit that you have some awful, neurotic traits, but I’ve come to a point in my life where I have to be able to laugh at my flaws and do my best to improve in the ways that I can. However, it is hilarious to watch these characters, completely absurd people, in the middle of a simple yet infuriating situation that is still relatable fifty-three years later.
George and Gwen Kellerman (Jack Lemmon & Sandy Dennis, respectively) are headed to New York City from their suburban home in Twin Oaks, Ohio. The occasion is an interview for George that could lead to a possible promotion and permanent move to the big city. Sounds fantastic. Things begin to go south when their plane must circle the city for hours due to heavy air traffic and then gets rerouted to Boston’s Logan Airport. If they manage their time right, the Kellermans can still make it. However, their luggage was left behind in Ohio, and they had their extra cash in it. The problems snowball, and the couple becomes increasingly unhinged, eventually getting to New York City only to find no hotel room waiting anymore. What began as a simple weekend trip becomes a never-ending nightmare.
The Out-of-Towners feels like the seed from which pictures like the National Lampoon Vacation flicks & Planes, Trains, and Automobiles would be born. It’s not a terribly complicated story; it’s simply people having a bad trip. Yet through the choices made in Lemmon & Dennis’s performances, it becomes so anxiety-inducing and amusing. I would make this a double feature with Uncut Gems because, I think, thematically, they mesh entirely. Their protagonists let their stress lead them down a path of worse and worse decisions. Because the Kellermans stay so focused on what is going wrong, and George certainly frames it as personal attacks, they consistently fail to find a way out of their predicament.
I can understand why someone might not like this movie, the characters are hardly sympathetic, but my personal tastes are that I enjoy movies with somewhat unlikeable protagonists. As I said above, I will admit that these characters feel a little too true to life for me. I have had some pretty awful anxiety, and I am big enough to admit I haven’t always expressed it constructively. The transition from the States to The Netherlands was particularly anxiety-inducing, as you might expect, and I had moments that paralleled George Kellerman. It’s good that I can look back and laugh. My wife found many similarities in how Gwen tried to encourage or just keep herself going despite the idiot’s ravings.
The momentum of Neil Simon’s script is impeccable. There is never a down moment from start to finish, with the story constantly propelling us from one set piece to the next. The humor would be lost if the picture allowed that energy to diffuse. It captures the feeling, not reality when everything seems stacked against you. The hotels are full, and they missed check-in time, so their room has gone to someone else. A transit strike is happening in NYC, so getting around becomes arduous. George doesn’t have his stomach ulcer meds (they were in the luggage). There is a sharpness to the script, an intelligence that many contemporary comedies just lack.
Ultimately, this worked for me because of how low-concept it is. Nothing ever goes so big that it becomes ludicrous until maybe the punchline in the last scene. Even then, it isn’t terrible because the film clearly isn’t going to keep going with that thread. I also want to point out how good Sandy Dennis is in this film. I think people will get swept up in Lemmon’s performance because he is the fool, and it allows him to go big. She’s doing smaller but not lesser things and is just as funny as him. Without the other, the performance wouldn’t work, and they display a rare depth of chemistry. It’s like when you see people who are fantastic improv partners, and the words & actions simply flow out of them. If you are searching for something that is pure comedy, with no lessons to be learned, that captures the tension & anxiety of a trip gone wrong, The Out-of-Towners still stands up as a near-perfect example.