Great on-screen duos are often the crux of a fantastic film. Rare breeds these pairings are. Two individuals who can not only define themselves as strong and uniquely meritable but bolster the efforts of their counterpart, who often acts as an opposite to the stylings of their role. That much should be the cast for The Fortune Cookie, a feature that pairs two of the best with a director whose hits are consistent, quick, and exciting. Billy Wilder, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau collaborations are of no surprise, they were frequent and fun, but something about The Fortune Cookie is horribly underwhelming, and it is in the usual draws that this three-way collaboration falters.
Unsurprisingly, the greatest asset of this Wilder feature is the leading pair. Lemmon and Walther are delightful as ever in The Fortune Cookie, a feature that paints the two as in-over-their-heads. What else could they be? As the characters come at them thick and fast, the core desire they have is to make cash through the accident of a cameraman and a footballer. Hard it is to take American Football all that seriously, it does serve as an immediate and rather strong backdrop. Wilder focuses more on the social union the sport brings, rather than the actual event itself. Press boxes billowing with smoke, and a freezing cameraman by the name of Harry Hinkle (Lemmon) on the ground for the game. His performance has that usual biting personality that only Lemmon could embody.
It is the clear, rewarding performance from Lemmon and the subsequent accident he finds himself in that make The Fortune Cookie so interesting. He is cheered by the crowd and then falls back to the ground. It proves rather weak from a comedic angle, but then the work of Lemmon and Matthau make up for these brief moments of lowly comedy. There is humour to be found in the dialogue, but the story itself overtakes much of that style of comedy. None of it is knee-slappingly hilarious, but wry smiles are frequent. It is the feeling of humour and its impact here, rather than the actual act of the joke, that creates a presence for Mathau and Lemmon. They have amicable chemistry, expectedly so, and are certainly comfortable collaborating with Wilder here.
But even with these likeable leads, The Fortune Cookie is not at all dependable or that well defined. Matthau’s serious lawyer character outshines that of Lemmon, who plays the fool rather well, but comes out looking like the chump such a role sets up. A role reversal for the two, especially when compared to The Odd Couple or even The Front, but one that has little humour to it. Wilder, Lemmon and Matthau have plenty of comedic highlights under their belt, but whatever they are trying within The Fortune Cookie, it is passive at best. Those narrative notes come together all too fast and have no time at all to breathe or grow. Instead, the utilisation of such an interesting story crumbles, a damning shame considering how interesting it could have been.