The Good: Funny, Decent acting, Generally decent characters
The Bad: Minutia
The Basics: The Apartment is a rare Best Picture winner for a romantic comedy that deserves its accolades.
I watch so many movies these days that it is almost surprising how long it sometimes takes for me to form an opinion on a movie. In the case of The Apartment, I was surprised by how instantly engaging the movie was and how quickly I came to enjoy it. Generally, I do not tend to enjoy situational comedies, especially when the situation in especially contrived, but in the case of The Apartment, there is so much charm and heart to it that it became instantly disarming and kept my interest. The last time I remember a comedy so thoroughly engaging me was when I first saw When Harry Met Sally.
It is also pretty shocking how for such a cinephile as me, how few films I've seen with Jack Lemmon. Back in junior high, I saw Some Like It Hot and since then, I don't believe I've seen anything he has been in. So having the chance to watch the film legend in his prime in The Apartment was a real treat.
C.C. Baxter is a mid-level executive working at an insurance agency where he flirts with the elevator operator, Fran. He lives a generally banal life, save that he has an apartment in a nice area of New York City that virtually everyone loves. It is convenient for most of the people who work above C.C. and Baxter gets ahead by loaning out his apartment to executives to bring their mistresses to. In fact, C.C.'s knack for pleasing his superiors puts him in the enviable position of getting a promotion as he has done so many favors for his superiors. As he works to become closer with Fran, though, he is drawn into a web of circumstances that leave him beleaguered.
Fran, as it turns out, is the former mistress of J.D. Sheldrake, the man who promotes Baxter and the latest executive to use his apartment. While Fran tries to keep Sheldrake at an arm's length - though he claims to be ready to leave his wife for her - she finds herself meeting with him at Baxter's apartment and as the two come together and fall apart, Baxter begins to discover clues as to who has been using his apartment. When Fran overdoses on his sleeping pills, C.C. is forced to confront his feelings for Fran and figure out what to do about the executives using his apartment.
Perhaps what is most surprising about The Apartment - at least for me as a student of history - is how audacious the film is. In school, we learn about the 1950s and (outside McCarthyism) how pure the social mores of the time were supposed to be. The Apartment, released in 1960 is anything but. Loaded with sexual innuendoes, promiscuous businessmen and loose women (most notably a woman in a bar who is happy to be picked up by Bud because her husband is a prisoner in Cuba), The Apartment features adults behaving badly. In addition to virtually every character being happy to use Baxter, Sheldrake uses Fran and makes her absolutely distraught. The rumors about 1950s social mores seem to be vastly overrated . . . or they truly did abruptly change at the turn of the decade.
In addition, what makes The Apartment so worthwhile is the strength of the characters in the film. The movie is very much a comedy; some of the best moments are screwball moments when Jack Lemmon as Bud acts opposite himself simply dancing with a glove as he tries to figure out what to do with artifacts left in his apartment as he prepares to score with a woman of his own. The film has undeniable comedic elements. But what it has that most comedies today lack are genuine characters and moments that are serious and real.
Take, for example, Fran's suicide attempt. Fran risks her heart for Sheldrake and when her affections are not requited, she tries to kill herself. This is handled in an appropriately serious way, as are Baxter's attempts to save her life. The film turns on a dime from Bud dancing with himself to rushing frantically to wake the right neighbor to save Fran's life. He is passionate and helpful and this follows on scenes where he has clear desire for Fran and tries desperately to get her attention.
It is not all serious, though. The film is disarming with its humor and the humor is not all slapstick or physical comedy, either. This is very much a situational comedy and there is a lot of wordplay and quick reversals. When Baxter is interviewing for his promotion, Sheldrake plays the straightman and Baxter is verbally zany and Lemmon gives one of his best moments of performance opposite a pen (which he unscrews, then tries to write with). And there are pretty classic jokes like "How many drinks have you had?" "Three!" (spoken emphatically by Lemmon as he holds up four fingers).
The reason the characters are so vivid is that the acting is wonderful. Fred MacMurray has a decent supporting role as the lecherous Sheldrake. He helps to establish what has become the archetype in American cinema of the sleazy boss and The Apartment clearly predates sexual harassment (by name, but not by action). Still, MacMurray is completely convincing as the unlikable Sheldrake.
It is Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine that rule "The Apartment." While the DVD box might make this film look like the natural predecessor to Bridget Jones's Diary the film focuses much more on C.C. than Fran, it is the chemistry Lemmon and MacLaine share on camera that makes the movie sparkle. Lemmon is energetic and he is completely convincing when he plays Bud as ill. He is equally passionate as he expresses concern for Fran by confiscating everything she might use to harm herself with. MacLaine is similarly wonderful as Fran. She plays a young woman in love perfectly and even gets a decent laugh with a callback to one of Lemmon's early lines.
But what the two have that makes The Apartment work so well is on-screen chemistry. Lemmon is at his most charming playing opposite MacLaine in the movie. While MacLaine has some great moments where she plays morose and damaged, she is most luminous playing opposite Lemmon. Lemmon delivers his lines best opposite her and when he tells Fran a story as C.C., he is charming. Moreover, MacLaine's reactions to him as a charmed Fran is great and very real.
On DVD, The Apartment features a commentary track which is focused on the director's vision, though it is an American Film Institute expert (the film's producer) Bruce Block. There are two featurettes: one on Jack Lemmon (a tribute to him after he died) and another on the place of The Apartment in film history. These are not exceptional DVD bonus features, but they are about average for this type of film.
But at the end of the day, The Apartment is funny and smart about its humor. The elements that are contrived are not contrived given where the film falls in film history; this helps establish the romantic comedy precepts, as opposed to following in a long tradition. And this is certainly well above what most romantic comedies are.
(FYI, unlike how the DVD box makes the film appear, this is in black and white.)
[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this film is part of W.L.'s Best Picture Project, available here! Please check it out!]
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© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.