Retirees John Gustafson (Lemmon), a former high school history teacher, and Max Goldman (Matthau), who was a TV repairman, are childhood friends, longtime rivals and next-door neighbors in Wabasha, Minnesota. Both of them are widowers. Their rivalry began decades earlier when John married Max's high school sweetheart, May. John and May were unhappily married for 20 years until her death, and had a daughter, Melanie (Daryl Hannah), who is having marital problems, and a son, Brian, who died in Vietnam. Max went on to marry Amy and had a son, Jacob (Kevin Pollak). Max never regretted marrying Amy, and thought their marriage was the best thing that ever happened to him. Despite their differences, both men lead boring and lonely single lives, and share a love for ice fishing, as well as competing, arguing, insulting, and pulling cruel practical jokes on each other. However, John has a problem that Max doesn't: he owes tens of thousands of dollars in back taxes to the Internal Revenue Service, and is going to great lengths to avoid agent Elliot Snyder (Buck Henry).
When beautiful college professor Ariel Truax (Ann-Margret) moves in across the street, Max and John's rivalry is renewed as they compete for her attention. Early on, Ariel spends time with Max, which secretly upsets John. While fighting with Max, John inadvertently opens the door to find Agent Snyder and is forced to meet with him. Things do not end all badly for John, however: Ariel decides to cook him dinner and they spend the evening together.
As Ariel spends more and more time with John, Max becomes angry, eventually ramming his truck into John's fishing shanty to push it into the lake. John and Max quarrel, with Max accusing John of stealing Ariel away like he did May. John points out May's sexual prowess, arguing that he saved Max from an unhappy marriage and that Max was better off with Amy because she was a loving and loyal wife. Although Max agrees, he notes that John will have no way to support Ariel when the IRS takes his house. Max's attempt at shame works, and John breaks up with Ariel despite having fallen in love with her. Ariel is offended and soon takes up with Max, while John sinks into a deep depression.
On Christmas Eve, the depressed John becomes even more upset when he learns that his daughter Melanie has forgiven her husband Michael, whom John dislikes. After trying to convince Melanie to go through with her divorce, he fights with Michael over his mistreatment of Melanie and orders him to leave. John storms out of the house and heads to the local bar. Max's son, Jacob, witnesses the end of the argument and convinces Max to go talk to John. At the bar, John admits to Max that he loves Ariel and believes Max doesn't understand how depressed he was over letting her go. He tells Max that none of it matters anymore because he got what he wanted in the end. When John decides to go home, Max follows John into the snow, wanting to make things right. By the time Max catches up to John, he finds him in a snow drift, experiencing a massive heart attack. After seeing John in the hospital, Max tells Ariel what happened. She rushes to John's bedside, and the two reconcile as he recovers. Max decides to step aside and let Ariel be with John.
Max tries to help John with his taxes, but because of the penalties induced by late payments, Snyder informs him that John owes $57,000, forcing John to sell his house in order to raise the large sum. Angered by Snyder's lack of sympathy, Max pays him back by pulling pranks and by getting his son Jacob, who has just been elected mayor, to block the sale of John's house.
Winter turns to spring, and John and Ariel get married. As a wedding gift, Max reveals to John that he was able to get John's tax debt reduced to the just over $13,000 that John originally owed and that Max paid it off himself. Max then goes off to a local dance sponsored by the VFW, while a newly single Melanie and Jacob, left home alone, begin a new romance with each other.Jack Lemmon as John Gustafson Jr.
Walter Matthau as Max Goldman
Ann-Margret as Ariel Truax
Burgess Meredith as John Gustafson Sr.
Daryl Hannah as Melanie Gustafson
Kevin Pollak as Jacob Goldman
Ossie Davis as Chuck (Bait Shop Owner)
Buck Henry as Elliott Snyder (IRS Agent)
Christopher McDonald as Mike
Steve Cochran as Weatherman
Joe Howard as Pharmacist
The screenplay of Grumpy Old Men was written by Mark Steven Johnson, a film student at Winona State University (Minnesota) and was based upon the life of noted Winona State theater professor Vivian Fusillo. The character of Max Goldman was based on former KWNO radio station owner and announcer Rod Hurd, who was dating Ms. Fusillo for a period in the 1970s.
Grumpy Old Men was one of the biggest surprise hits of the year at the time of its release. The film opened on December 25, 1993 with a weekend gross of $3,874,911. However, its numbers gradually became stronger, earning a domestic total of $70 million, well above its budget of $35 million.
On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes the film has an approval rating of 65% based on 37 reviews, with a rating average of 5.8/10. On Metacritic, which assigns a weighted average rating to reviews, the film has a score of 53 out of 100, based on 16 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews". Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "A" on an A+ to F scale.
Caryn James of The New York Times called the film "the kind of holiday movie a lot of people are searching for." He went on to explain that this is because "It's cheerful, it's well under two hours and it doesn't concern any major social blights, unless you think Jack Lemmon tossing a dead fish into Walter Matthau's car is cause for alarm." Despite rating it with two stars out of four, and giving it a mixed review about the film's credibility and diction, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times concluded his review by saying that "Matthau and Lemmon are fun to see together, if for no other reason than just for the essence of their beings." Peter Rainer of the Los Angeles Times said, "Watching Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau sparring with each other in Grumpy Old Men is like watching an old vaudeville routine for the umpteenth time." Rainer added, "They play off their tics and wheezes with the practiced ease of old pros but there's something a bit too chummy and self-congratulatory about it all."
American Film Institute recognition:AFI's 100 Years... 100 Laughs – Nominated
Grumpy Old Men was first released on DVD on June 25, 1997. On August 22, 2006, the film was made available in a DVD "Double Feature" pack along with its sequel Grumpier Old Men. On July 7, 2009, the film was made available by itself on Blu-ray. The "Double Feature" pack was later released onto Blu-ray on February 23, 2010. The Blu-ray releases marked the first time both films have been available in widescreen since the LaserDisc releases. None of the Blu-ray releases contain any special features.
A sequel, entitled Grumpier Old Men, was released on December 22, 1995, with Lemmon, Matthau and Ann-Margret all reprising their roles and Mark Steven Johnson again writing the script.