In our youth-obsessed culture, stories about old people are rare: admissions of physical defeat for a society that neurotically insists upon winning. So when movies like Wrestling Ernest Hemingway and Grumpy Old Men do get released, they're fraught with social meaning whether they like it or not. The way such films present old age-as a battle, a wake, a party, or a nap-speaks to the fears and hopes of the people who made them and the audiences they're aiming at. And success has little to do with intent. Hemingway is a noble human drama that feels canned and inert, while the shallow pratfalls of Grumpy Old Men hide richly funny observations.
The second shot in Hemingway is of Richard Harris' naked butt. This is meant to be a bracing slap to the senses-here's the reality of old age, folks- but its calculation renders it harmless. So the movie goes throughout. Harris plays Frank Joyce, a landlocked sailor and full-time Life Force winding down in a seedy Florida motel run by Shirley MacLaine (who has little more than a cameo, no matter what the ads say). Full of self-pity and whiskey-and looking incredibly like Popeye-Frank is in flight from his body's betrayal; * he's acting out Dylan Thomas' advice to ''rage, rage against the dying of the light.''
It's a gutsy performance in a gutless movie. Directed by Randa Haines (Children of a Lesser God), Hemingway pairs Frank with his opposite number: a shy, retired Cuban barber named Walt (Robert Duvall), whose courtly manner and thick glasses hide a lion's heart. The two become buddies and share tiny pleasures-peeing in the ocean, getting an old-fashioned shave-that Haines turns into swollen epiphanies while Michael Convertino's score pushes you this way and that, pausing every so often to rip off Ralph Vaughan Williams. In one scene, Frank and Walt bicycle off to see some fireworks and never get there. That about sums up the movie.
Grumpy Old Men is even pokier, and its robust vulgarity is sure to put off tender souls. But if the movie is lacking in class and plot, it's also without pretense: Director Donald Petrie sits back and lets Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau grouse at each other, knowing (as we do) that the former's dither is perfectly matched to the latter's sour bellow.
If nothing else, the movie's a roaring return to form for Matthau, the only actor since W.C. Fields to fashion a career out of dyspepsia, chagrin, and misanthropy. Wattles slapping about, his mouth a parabola of incredulous outrage, Matthau plays Max Goldman, lifelong rival to Lemmon's fussy John Gustafson. The two are neighbors in Wabasha, Minn., a wintry burg where a man can pass the whole day without saying much more than ''I need a six-pack of Schmidt and a can of bait,'' and where the arrival of a new neighbor is an earth-shattering development. Especially when she wears a tight purple snowsuit, quotes Edward Albee, and is played by Ann-Margret.
Initially, as Max and John blink their eyes in horndog disbelief, there's a hint that Ariel is as supernatural as her Shakespearean namesake-that the angelic joy she brings to men late in life may indeed be fatal. That's never followed up; in fact, the whole second half of the movie feels clumsily written over. Ariel ends up a romantic pawn in John and Max's feud, fading from an intriguing trickster into a two-dimensional babe for the Dentu-Creme set. And when Grumpy Old Men takes a serious turn, with a sticky subplot involving Max's son (Kevin Pollak) and John's daughter (Daryl Hannah), and a shameless hospital-bed scene set on Christmas Eve, you may be tempted to give up on it.
But for all its formal gracelessness, the movie is onto an aspect of old age that Wrestling Ernest Hemingway never bothers to consider: the little pleasures of ritual. It's there in Max and John's pro forma insults and in the unspoken rules of the ice-fishing community where they pass each day (until Ariel turns them against each other and Max tries to stab John with a frozen muskie). That continuity extends outside the film as well, to our knowledge of the on-screen relationship that Matthau and Lemmon have built up through four previous movies-a relationship that is acknowledged with a wonderfully affectionate final outtake during the end credits. Relaxed, valedictory, exquisitely titled, Grumpy Old Men feels like an odd couple's last hurrah. Wrestling Ernest Hemingway: C Grumpy Old Men: B