This satire on new-fangled but repressed citizens was a big hit on Broadway in front of the right audience (future Woody Allen fans). Perhaps it was not a good idea to put it on the big screen with a star cast, a scenery worthy of a Spielberg film and in cinemascope, no less. Absurd theater and pantomime never work on screen. Add a car-chase and an incomprehensible amount of slapstick and you understand why this film flopped. The plot in itself is good: Winner-type Milt Manville (Peter Falk) wants to get rid of his wife Ellen (Elaine May) to marry his sweetheart Linda. So he hires loser-type Harry Berlin (Jack Lemmon) to become Ellen's second husband. Before long Ellen and Milt realize their new spouses are losers and reunite. Since Harry won't leave they decide to kill him.
Peter Falk gives an adroit and smooth performance. His Milt is a true braggart: He shows off with his golden watch, his silk underwear and his terrace-house. He styles himself as "broker" although the source of his income is a flourishing second-hand trade ("There's a fortune waiting for us in garbage-cans"). Harry, on the other hand, is the classic loser. Top boy in school, high-flying plans. Drinks & drugs & girls & gurus. Now it's "why me?" and he contemplates suicide.
Milt tries to make Ellen palatable to Harry: He smartens her up and lauds her talents: she represents her married life diagrammatically. Milt sells Harry as intellectual "He has nearly written a book!" and cajoles Ellen into falling in love with him despite his tics and unsavory table-manners. But it's not until Harry and Ellen discover that they have common interests (flamenco) that two hearts beat like one. There are inspired moments when the lovebirds place confidence in each other. Ellen recklessly declares things like "I wish I were a lesbian" and "I'm too intelligent. Men feel threatened". They go to an amusement-park and lead a "profound" conversation about their miserable childhood. During the divorce-suit Milt tries to beat them at their own game "I have been flogged!" - in vain: The judge allows him to keep nothing but his underwear.
The funniest scene in the film shows Ellen and Harry during their honeymoon in Niagara Falls. She asks her new husband intimate questions - and he answers them down to the smallest detail. They test the strength of their love: He steps on her feet, she cuts his suspenders, he throws her mink-coat in the flood...But soon Ellen and Milt are disillusioned. Linda spends her days in bed, curlers in her hair, and she refuses to pay maintenance for her husband's ex-wife. Harry too is averse to work and plans to study medicine instead...
There is much witty dialogue. My favorite moment comes when Ellen examines her diagrams and jumps to the conclusion: " You love exclusively Milt - you are gay!". Lemmon's facial expression when he considers this alternative for a very long second is priceless, but sadly such inspired moments are rare. An overdose of slapstick quells any delicacy of feeling. Lemmon looks half-starved (he went down to 136 pounds) - of all films he made between 1962 and 68 this is the only one I hesitate to recommend. I doubt that you will love the film in his entirety. Better concentrate on its details. It parodies the love-life in a hedonistic but insecure society ten years before ANNIE HALL.