Apartment, The

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 02/09/05 15:42:24

"Another piece of Wilder genius, masterpiece-wise."
5 stars (Awesome)

I’ve always wondered why so many people consider Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment” to be a comedy. It’s dark and bitter, with a satirical mean streak that bites even harder than it barks. And above all, it’s one of the most heartbreaking films I’ve ever seen.

But it’s also so very, very funny, making this a reminder that some stories refuse to fall into categories; “The Apartment” is both comedy and drama, but please don’t call it a “dramedy,” either. Watching this film moves you through so many emotions, and while one viewer may guffaw at Jack Lemmon’s self-deprication and his bosses’ clueless cruelties, another will be wiping away tears over the very same things. This is a tale of unbearable sadness made bearable by an oversized pinch of comic wit.

Wilder, who directed and co-wrote the film with longtime collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, once said that his inspiration came from watching the romance classic “Brief Encounter.” That film, which concerned two married folks having an affair, got Wilder to thinking. Mason Wiley and Damien Bona’s essential book “Inside Oscar” quotes Wilder as explaining: “I began to brood about one of the undeveloped characters, the guy who owns the apartment.”

And soon C.C. “Bud” Baxter was born. Played by Jack Lemmon (in one of his very finest performances), Bud’s the kind of guy folks tend to walk all over, mainly because he lets them. The apartment of the title, you see, is Bud’s; he loans it out to various highers-up at his insurance company, and they use it for a little extramarital fun. Bud’s sure that such a sacrifice will move him up the corporate ladder, but is it worth a promotion to spend countless nights sleeping in the rain because some goober from human resources wants to romance a bimbo?

Bud likes his quiet life, but he also has a thing for Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine, in one of the most swoon-inducing roles ever put on film), the lovely elevator operator. What Bud doesn’t know is that she’s the other woman in the life of company boss Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) - who happens to be the latest fellow employee to enjoy Bud’s apartment.

What Bud also doesn’t know is that Sheldrake and Miss Kubelik (her first name’s Fran, but there’s something about the character that demands she retain her formal name) are at the end of their affair, with all the messiness that entails. But it doesn’t matter. For starters, he’s been heartbroken, stood up waiting for a date with Miss Kubelik while she’s out getting drinks with Sheldrake.

Then comes the scene in which Bud accidentally discovers that Miss Kubelik is Sheldrake’s mistress. I will not tell you how this happens, but I will say that it is the first of many crushing sequences, and it is genius in its simplicity. Then watch how Lemmon handles the heartbreak - here’s a man falling to pieces inside but unable to let his emotions show. What a magnificent (and moving) bit of acting.

The tragedy of the Bud character is that he’s willing to sacrifice his own reputation in order to cover for others. His nosy neighbors think he’s a sex machine and a heartbreaker, what with the parade of women that come and go. Would he tell them the truth? No, that would be easy, but it would also be breaking the trust of the other men, despite the fact that they deserve no trust. (Ray Walston, as one of the adultering parties in question, is exceptionally slimy; just the way he says the nickname “Buddy Boy” smacks with cheap smugness. In just a few scenes, Walston creates a perfectly unlikable side character.)

We want to admire Bud for using this ruined reputation to cover for Miss Kubelik in later scenes, but we love the character so much that we still want to slap him and say (as Miss Kubelik eventually does) “you fool… you damn fool.” We understand why he wants to protect the honor of this woman, and we sigh over the fact that he also wants to protect the honor of Sheldrake. If ever a romance was written about self-sacrifice, “The Apartment” is it.

Bud doesn’t get all the pain, however, as MacLaine’s Miss Kubelik is one of cinema history’s greatest heartbroken heroines. Miss Kubelik is a woman who’s gone from one bad relationship to another, and she knows it. MacLaine is absolutely devastating in the part, a woman whose pain refuses to hide. (On her broken makeup mirror, she comments: “I like it. Makes me look the way I feel.”)

Miss Kubelik gets no help from Sheldrake, a thoughtless jerk of a man who’s best described by his Christmas present to Miss Kubelik - a hundred dollar bill. “It’s a little awkward, me shopping,” he bluntly explains, and he doesn’t even consider the implication of the gift. Sheldrake is equally oblivious to Bud’s feelings, certain that he can buy his way into Bud’s apartment with the promise of a flashy promotion. MacMurray has never been better than he is here, the purest description of crassness disguised by slickness.

While the film is an absolute delight thanks to its marvelous cast, the real honors go to Wilder and Diamond, who have crafted one of the sharpest scripts ever produced by Hollywood. The film creates its own flow of language, from its giddy yet stinging mockery of businessman-speak (“Premium-wise and billing-wise, we are eighteen percent ahead of last year, October-wise”) to its brutally honest comments on the big scary world outside (“Some people take, some people get took, and they know they’re getting took, and there’s nothing they can do about it”) to the charming rhythms of Bud’s introductory narration (which is too long to quote here, but boy, is it a beauty). “The Apartment” is one of those movies that would make a great read, and sitting back and hearing the dialogue drip from the actors’ tongues is one of the true pleasures of watching the movies.

To say that this is Wilder and Diamond’s best screenplay would invite argument; after all, Diamond co-wrote Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot,” while Wilder also wrote or co-wrote “Ninotchka,” “Double Indemnity,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “The Lost Weekend,” “Stalag 17”... you get the idea. So I will not say that “The Apartment” is Wilder’s best work, as either a writer or director, but I will say that it is clearly my favorite. Unarguable is the fact that this is a masterpiece. (OK, I know that “masterpiece” is a word that’s overused, certainly, but hey, it works here.) This is the film people who want to write movies should watch to see just how to do it; the characters, the situations, the dialogue, the plotting, they’re all so simple at first glance and yet they’re all so deeply, richly constructed to the point of flawlessness. And above all, it’s just a great watch, and isn’t that why we love the movies?

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