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The Out of Towners
IMDB Rating: 7.1/10 from 5,413 votes
Release: 28 May 1970 (USA) /

The Out of Towners

Genre: Comedy
Director: Arthur Hiller,
Stars: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Synopsis: George and Gwen Kellerman live in the small, quiet town of Twin Oaks, Ohio with their two young children and pet dog. George has a strong sense of what is right and wrong, especially as it applies to himself and Gwen, but he still looks to her for validation. Working for a plastics company, George believes he is a shoo-in for the company's Vice-President of Sales, New York Division job, a position located in New York City. George is looking forward to their future life in New York City, with all the amenities and benefits living in the big city has to offer. For George's 9 am interview, George and Gwen plan on taking a flight that lands in New York at 8 pm the evening before, which gives them time for dinner at New York's finest restaurant, The Four Seasons, and a comfortable night's stay at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel before the interview. But nothing on this trip goes according to plan. In fact, what can go wrong, does. Because of circumstances, it even looks as if George may miss his... Written by Huggo

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Critic Reviews


I have a special name this genre--I call these "going to hell in a handbasket" (or just "hell handbasket") films. They are defined by taking "average Joes", often a bit timid at first, and setting them at odds against the world--initially through no, or at least relatively little, fault of their own--in an increasing spiral of dilemmas from which extrication seems impossible. The more they try to dig themselves out of a hole, the further they fall in. "Hell handbasket" films are often comedies, but need not be. Famous examples of the genre include After Hours (1985), Very Bad Things (1998), and My Boss' Daughter (2003). An even greater number of films have elements of the "hell handbasket" genre, combined with other genres, such as Suicide Kings (1997), Killing Zoe (1994) and Neighbors (1981). Because I really like what I consider nihilism in films, the "hell handbasket" genre is one of my favorites.

I bring all of this up, of course, because The Out of Towners is one of the earliest examples, if not the first full fledged "hell handbasket" film. Even if not the first, it is certainly one of the most influential. It may not be one of the best films of the genre any longer, but only because its successors have taken its pioneering lead and upped the ante. Still, the final verdict for me at this point in time is a B, or an 8. That, plus its historical importance, makes it well worth watching.

George (Jack Lemmon) and Gwen Kellerman (Sandy Dennis) are on their way from Twin Oaks, Ohio to New York City--George is up for a big job promotion. His company wants to make him Vice President of the head office in Manhattan. George is naturally a bit neurotic and obsessive/compulsive, and in order to make sure everything goes like clockwork, he has the trip planned out to the last minute.

Of course, things start going wrong, beginning with the flight to New York, which is first put into a holding pattern because of excessive traffic, then later sent to Boston because of the weather. They arrive in Boston hours late, and there is little chance they can get to New York City on time. Despite his planning ahead, it looks unlikely that George will be at his interview with the company President at 9:00 a.m. sharp the next morning.

If The Out of Towners has a flaw, it's that there are slight logical problems when it comes to the Kellermans getting into their increasingly difficult conundrums. A number of times viewers will find themselves asking questions like, "Wait, aren't their buses to New York City from Boston?" Or, "Why would they trust Murray (Graham Jarvis)?" Director Arthur Hiller, writer Neil Simon, and Lemmon and Dennis try to justify these decisions through characterization. George goes from neurotic and self-righteous to even more neurotic and self-righteous, which most of the time is sufficient support for him not always thinking rationally. Dennis goes from cool and collected (or at least she projects as much initially) to irritable, a bit panicky, and generally paranoid and put-off by the city. Still, there are times when the characterization isn't quite in tune with the characters' decisions. It doesn't happen too often, but often enough. Since this aspect is an extremely important element of "hell handbasket" films, it caused me to bring my rating down a point.

On the other hand, it's clear that Hiller and Simon aren't always shooting for a straightforward, literal film. In many ways, The Out of Towners is something of a New York City parable. Most of the elements that make the city a challenge are present--including dilemmas of transportation, the high cost of living, the difficulty of finding readily available and amenable services, strikes, bureaucracy, crime, trusting fellow citizens, the mostly aloof treatment of crazies, protests, social and ethnic conflicts, and so on. By the end of the film, it's no longer just a race to get to a job interview on time; it's a "universal" conflict of man against New York City.

George ends up yelling at the city in the middle of the street, "You won't beat me!"--even though he looks defeated. We could almost call it a love story for New York, although maybe only people who have lived in New York for an extended length of time would understand that. Since the Kellermans were out-of-towners, that might help justify the ending, which is otherwise inexplicable to New Yorkers. At any rate, if you're curious about what it's like to live in New York, watch The Out of Towners back-to-back with something like Woody Allen's Manhattan (1979). Even though both films are around 30 years old, the combination gives a good idea of the joys and joyous frustrations of living in the city.

Like usual, maybe I'm being overly analytical or abstract for many folks. So back to the basics. More often than not, the Out of Towners is funny--maybe not always tears-rolling-down-your-cheek funny, but at least chuckle-funny. When it's not funny, it's usually a joy to watch Lemmon's performance. Dennis can be more challenging for many viewers (quite a few people, including my wife, found her more annoying during the later portion of the film), but for me, her character worked as a good combination of foil and catalyst for Lemmon, even if she was something like a slightly toned-down Fran Drescher in "The Nanny" (1993).

Overall, the film works well enough to strongly recommend it, especially to Lemon fans, fans of comedies of this era, and fans of "hell handbasket" films, even if you didn't know you were one before you read this review.

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