Billy Wilder’s The Apartment has the distinction of being both an effective farce as well as an engaging picture of realism. Rarely has a director balanced mood so well. C.C. Baxter was the prototype for today’s bumbling romantic comedy heroes (Steve Carell comes to mind), and Jack Lemmon is nothing short of perfect in the role. Finding himself pressured by his superiors into opening up his apartment for infidelities, Baxter is subsequently on the fast track to a promotion. Lemmon’s humorous performance fits right in with the absurd situation (a sharp stab at infidelity and corporate corruption).
Amidst all of the wit, of which there is in spades, is an undeniable air of human melancholy. I found myself smiling at sharp lines, Lemmon’s goofy persona, and the farcical nature of it all (Adolph Deutsch’s wonderful score often explicitly mirrors Baxter’s emotionally state). However, I rarely laughed out loud. Fran Kubelik (a captivating Shirley Maclaine) is the wittiest of them all. The Apartment has a way of sneaking in grounded realism between the cracks of sharp humor and wisecracks, revealing characters so perfectly written and performed they might as well be real. Baxter gets a cold from being shut out of his apartment, he uses a tennis racket to strain spaghetti noodles, and Fran doesn’t particularly like Gin Rummy. The pasts of these wonderful characters dictate their actions and even their personalities.
Love, as with all great romance films, doesn’t always play fair. Fran is perhaps the smartest person in the picture, and her heightened self-awareness allows her to observe her terrible situation. Fred MacMurray is great as the slimeball corporate kingpin Jeff Sheldrake, acting as the villainous wedge between our two leads – and what leads! Wilder’s slick, crisp direction and gleefully witty script disappear entirely when Lemmon and Maclaine share the screen. Their crackling, compelling, and human chemistry is the core of The Apartment, a film so full of realism you just might miss the brilliant comedy.
Now streaming on Netflix.