In the maddening, justly forgotten 1967 quirk-fest Luv, Jack Lemmon is introduced as a clumsy aggregation of writerly tics and eccentricities. His body freezes at random intervals. He goes blind when nervous. He’s terrified of dogs. He swings erratically from maudlin, self-pitying despair to singing, dancing giddiness. Whenever he has an opportunity to slip away, he attempts suicide. He’s eccentric at best and a cartoonish loonball at worst. Lemmon had few peers as a tragicomic physical comedian, but this oppressively zany dark comedy (even the title tries too damn hard), an adaptation of Tootsie writer Murray Schisgal’s play, gives Lemmon more gimmicky, distracting, irritatingly unconvincing physical business than even he can bear to handle. Gifted co-stars Elaine May and Peter Falk are equally ill served by Elliott Baker’s grating screenplay and Clive Donner’s lumbering direction: Lemmon, May, and Falk aren’t miscast so much as they’re given insufferably artificial characters that are impossible to play.
A defeated and flailing Lemmon stars as a man rescued from a suicide attempt by long-lost friend Peter Falk, a junk dealer who wants to pawn his cold, overly intellectual wife (Elaine May) on Lemmon so he can marry a buxom, empty-headed gym teacher (Nina Wayne). Lemmon takes the bait and marries May, who soon discovers that Lemmon is insane, averse to making an honest living and much worse husband material than even her boring old ex. Lemmon remains consistently crazy from start to finish, but May, Wayne, and Falk’s motivations and personalities shift radically according to the demands of a Rube Goldberg contraption of a plot that expends maximum energy for minimum reward.
Late in the film, May complains that Lemmon “isn’t human.” It’s easy to empathize with her (for once) because none of the film’s characters behave in ways that are recognizably human. Luv can most generously be considered a disastrous test run for the following year’s The Odd Couple, which similarly cast Lemmon as a sad sack who begins the film by attempting suicide. Lemmon would get it right the next time and create one of his most beloved characters, but first he stumbled badly with a film so strained, contrived, and devoid of laughs and poignancy that even the combined forces of May, Falk, and his own genius for physical comedy and pathos can’t save it. In The Odd Couple, Lemmon triumphed; here, he and the film die a long, slow death by excessive wackiness.
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