Today, it would be difficult to get a movie like The Fortune Cookie produced. By modern Hollywood standards, the moral is too trivial, the script riddled with too many subtle jokes, and the plot hampered by characters who are too human. It would never fit in with the kind of moviemaking society that churns out pictures like Batman Forever, which is exactly the opposite: the moral is the ultimate in Good vs Evil, all the obvious gags are played out, and the characters are not people, but embodiments of abstract ideals.
It's a crying shame, really.
Released in 1966, The Fortune Cookie is primarily the story of Harry Hinkle (Jack Lemmon) and his brother-in-law, Willie Gingrich (Walter Matthau). Harry works as a cameraman for CBS, televising football games. During a particularly rough play, Harry is mowed down by Luther "Boom Boom" Jackson, a (fictional) star player for the Cleveland Browns. Harry wakes up in the hospital, only to find that Willie, an ambulance-chasing but brilliant lawyer, has already filed suit against the Browns for a million dollars. Although Harry initially rejects the idea, Willie convinces him to continue faking injury in order to win back his ex-wife.
Although Matthau and Lemmon have the center spots, the really interesting characters are Jackson (played by Ron Rich) and Harry's ex-wife, Sandy (Judi West). "Boom Boom" feels terrible about hurting Harry, especially to such an extreme extent. The football star spends so much time attending to Harry that his game begins to slip, and Harry suspects (rightly) that his newfound friend has a drinking problem caused by a guilty conscience. Sandy, on the other hand, left Harry to continue her singing career in New York, and is only returning because she thinks Willie might actually succeed in making Harry rich.
If Lemmon's character from The Apartment, Bud Baxter, had failed in wooing Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), he would have ended up as Harry Hinkle -- a bitter but likeable guy whose life skipped the tracks a few miles back. Hinkle has been kicked around so much that he tries very hard to discard his own morals in an attempt to turn things around. Hinkle's a very perceptive character -- he knows that Jackson is having conscience problems, he knows that Willie has only Willie's best interests in mind -- but he lacks that perception in one area: his ex-wife. Harry is so blind to the fact that Sandy is only after his potential insurance award that his final realization of the truth is especially sour. Boom Boom, who sees past Sandy's veneer, is so averse to hurting Harry again that he lets Harry believe that Sandy loves him. Not that Harry would believe otherwise.
Matthau as Willie.
One of the great things about The Fortune Cookie that seems to have been lost in modern filmmaking is the character acting. So many films these days are unable to coax any kind of quick and witty dialogue out of peripheral characters, largely because they underestimate the ability of audiences to pick up quickly on a character's motivations and personality. The Fortune Cookie is crammed full of such bit characters, and it is much the richer for it. From the football pool nuns at the hospital to the two detectives who spy on Harry from across the street, there's always someone with a wisecrack, providing additional perspective to the main plot.
Unfortunately, The Fortune Cookie drags a bit towards the end. Weighing in at over 2 hours, there is perhaps a bit too much gruesome introspection and bitter wallowing on Lemmon's part, and a too-generous helping of scheming by Matthau as well. The way the film is broken into episodes doesn't help much either, especially when each section can be as short as three minutes or as long as half an hour.
The Fortune Cookie isn't one of the films you think of when you hear the names Jack Lemmon or Walter Matthau. Today they're better known for the Grumpy Old Men franchise and the upcoming Odd Couple 2 movie. It's also not one of Billy Wilder's better known films. As compared to The Apartment, it's a little sadder, a little wiser, and a heck of a lot more bitter. These things don't stop it from being a funny and thoughtful movie.