Written by: Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond
Starring: Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Ron Rich, Judi West, Cliff Osmond
Often proclaimed a nation of laws, not many countries will find citizens more likely to sue their fellow people like Americans. A quick search on the internet will show the strangest and obtuse reasons at the cause of various lawsuits. The particular lawsuit at the center of The Fortune Cookie may be the oldest ones in the book but with the incredible talents in front and behind the camera to tell it, the film proves to such a raucous delight.
Working as a cameraman for an NFL game featuring the Cleveland Browns, Harry Hinkle (Jack Lemmon) gets hit by running back Luther Jackson (Ron Rich) as he ran out of bounds. While not suffering any major injuries, Hinkle’s brother-in-law William Gingrich (Walter Matthau) devises the plot of suing the team and the stadium for damages. Obviously a lie, Hinkle goes along not because of the money but the potential of his ex-wife coming back to him.
For anyone who watches sports, the inciting incident of this movie looks very familiar. Many times I have seen a basketball player barrel into a camera operator when trying to save a ball from going out of bounds or a football player running with full momentum run into another one of these professionals. It seemingly comes as part of the job or perhaps it became this way because of the hilarious manner in which The Fortune Cookie captures how easily fraudulent lawsuits can take hold with a sleazy enough lawyer willing to push it. The story becomes the battle of interests and how this potential lawsuit enriches the lives of some, harms others, and the way Bill Wilder manages it all demonstrates why he’s one of the greats.
A combination of Jack Lemmon, Walther Matthau, and Bill Wilder could not possibly fail, and uniting their talents in this feature served as a real treat. Wilder is no stranger to working within wacky situations just as his filmography will show, but the moral dilemma at the center of this feature really digs on what individuals are willing to allow in order to get something out of a deal. Through co-writing the script and directing the feature, Wilder lays out everyone’s motive and gains from their actions and as with most of his films, morality wins in the end.
The motives remain clear seeing as Gingrich gets to receive his own payday, Hinkle believes his ex-wife, Sandy (Judi West), will come back and even she has her own motivations. On the other side of the lawsuit is the firm representing the NFL team and the private detectives they hire in order to discover the validity of this injury. Everyone has an interest in this lawsuit, which gets laid out right in the trailer, “the love of money.” The only one not caring for the money itself is the lead in all of this.
Like in many of Wilder’s comedies, this feature lands in some purely absurd territory, which all comes as part of the fun. The characters have over-the-top tendencies and as a result, everything gets heightened in the expectation of something wild happening. So many sequences have a plethora of great jokes laced through them, only made better by the great actors delivering them. This particular brand of comedy matches the distinct overall tone set from the very beginning and carries throughout until it hits the more dramatic beats.
For most of the narrative, Hinkle remains a passive participant in the lawsuit even with him being at the center of it all. He just hopes all of this will bring back his wife even when knowing how insidious these efforts might be. I’m all for major corporations paying out when necessary but the central lie here takes away all sympathy from Gingrich as a character. The drama comes with running back, Luther Jackson. Feeling the conflict of having injured and allegedly paralyzed Hinkle, his downward trajectory throughout the film truly demonstrates the guilt riddling his mind. The remorse running through this head makes it particularly difficult for Hinkle to pull through with this sham. His identity as a Black man also factors into the story, especially towards the more climactic segment of the film. No longer is the victim of this lawsuit just a billion-dollar franchise with insurance to cover a settlement, but a real human being, which this film never loses sight of.
Acting as a sensational duo, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau truly knock it out of the park. Lemmon portrays a similar style of character as he has done several times with Wilder like in The Apartment and Some Like it Hot!. Wilder and Lemmon have proven success with each other but Matthau truly stole the show for me. Playing the sleazy lawyer role does not set up the character as someone to root for but the aura he creates with Gingrich made me, at times, root for him to pull it off. Just a man going after his payday and making sure no one else gets in the way. His character, Gingrich, proves to always be the smartest person in the room in the way he manipulates everyone to work things in the manner he prefers and it becomes a delight to see how Matthau navigates it all. From Hinkle, the investigators, other lawyers, and even his own sister, Gingrich is admirably ruthless and the way Matthau brings out this character’s conniving features allows him to shine.
A completely entertaining and ridiculous romp, The Fortune Cookie forces you to root for something wrong being done but in the end, the love of money cannot beat the love for your fellow person. It allows someone as intelligent as Gingrich to learn that nothing can beat the compassion one individual has for another and it plays out with so many witty jokes and a cast of characters so fun to watch. Of the many Wilder classics, this one does not receive as much attention, but it certainly fits right near the top of an illustrious filmography.