Total Recall

Total Recall: Get Off My Lawn!

We run down some of the meanest seniors ever to crab it up on the big screen.

by | January 7, 2009 | Comments

Clint Eastwood’s latest, Gran Torino, goes into wide release this week, telling the story of a reactionary vet who forms an unlikely bond with a neighborhood kid. Thus, we at Rotten Tomatoes thought it would be a perfect time to compile a list of some of the stodgiest, crabbiest, most curmudgeonly old codgers ever to grace the silver screen. Plus, reading this list means you might learn to stay off some crusty old guy’s lawn — making the neighborhood a happier place for all.

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Miracle Max, The Princess Bride

Fired from his royal post years ago, magic man Miracle Max (Billy Crystal) has retired to wallow in bitterness and contempt until Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) comes calling, a miracle to request: would Max save the mostly-dead Westley (Cary Elwes) from all-deadness, for the sake of revenge, true love, or even $65? Not likely. Could the shrill badgering of his wife Valerie (Carol Kane) convince Max to help in the name of love? Not a chance. Thankfully, there’s one noble cause that could persuade Max to operate: vengeance against Prince Humperdinck! One chocolate-covered miracle pill later, and Max is a much happier grumpy old man: “Have fun storming the castle!”

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Royal Tenenbaum, The Royal Tenenbaums

Cruelly manipulative, casually racist, and capable of remarkably cold put-downs, Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) is the little-loved patriarch of a family of eccentrics. He’s left a wide swath of pain in his wake — from his brisk dismissal of step-daughter Margot’s precocious theater work to blasting son Chas in the hand with a BB gun. As he attempts to re-ingratiate himself with his estranged clan, Royal shows a softer side — even if he can’t help but be a mean old codger much of the time.

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William Munny, Unforgiven

Clint Eastwood has given us a number of memorably cantankerous cranks through the years, from reactionary cop “Dirty” Harry Callahan to crusty boxing trainer Frank Dunn. However, as the aging gunfighter William Munny in the Best Picture-winning Unforgiven, Eastwood was able to burnish his old-school image in a Western that stood proudly next to his work with Sergio Leone. Munny, once a remorseless killer (and now a stable family man), is recruited to kill a drunken cowboy who slashed a prostitute, and later must confront renegade sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman). At first, Munny is hesitant, but, pushed to the brink by Little Bill, he finds he’s less of a changed man than he thought.

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Mr. Hand, Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) could not be as memorable a stoner if it weren’t for the adversity supplied by history teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walston). Convinced everyone is on dope, Mr. Hand trusts no one — though he’s happy to hand out Spicoli’s double cheese and sausage pizza when the order arrives. (Only to his favorites in class, of course.) Sharpened and bitter from years of teaching the indolents of Ridgemont High, Mr. Hand (played by the actor formerly known as “My Favorite Martian”) was not wholly lacking in a dark sense of humor. After all, he did offer Spicoli a mandatory and impromptu history tutorial that lasted just long enough to make Spicoli late for the prom. (“You guys wouldn’t want me to go to your house and discuss U.S. history on your time, would you?”)

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John Gustafson and Max Goldman, Grumpy Old Men

John (Jack Lemmon) and Max (Walter Matthau) are proof that not everyone mellows with age. These neighbors have resented each other for years, ever since John won the affections of Max’s first love. Despite being a bit long in the tooth for such antics, John and Max have maintained a veritable Spy vs. Spy-esque prank war for years, which include bouts of verbal put-downs and the careful placement of dead fish. Things escalate when the pair vies for the attention of Ariel (Ann-Margaret), and the result is the destruction of a perfectly good ice hut. (Matthau gets bonus curmudgeon points for joining forces with Ossie Davis in the crabfest I’m Not Rappaport.)

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Wilson, The Limey

When Wilson (Terence Stamp) yells “TELL HIM I’M F—-ING COMING!” it’s probably a good idea to stay out of his way. This Brit ex-con decamps in Los Angeles to investigate the suspicious death of his daughter, and he’s pretty sure a sketchy record producer named Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda) had something to do with it. After sustaining a beat-down from Valentine’s thugs, Wilson proves he’s pretty efficient with a handgun. A DEA agent (Bill Duke), who’s also on Valentine’s trail, makes it pretty clear he’s not going to stand in Wilson’s way — but in addition to notches on his handgun, the old man has plenty of baggage and regret.

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Judge Smalls, Caddyshack

The Fresca-offering, satisfaction-demanding Judge Smalls (Ted Knight) was one of the founders of the Bushwood Country Club, and he’s none too pleased by the miscreants currently making hay with his beloved game (and don’t get him started on the gophers wreaking havoc on the fairways). A stern jurist in the courtroom, Smalls is a death penalty proponent, and probably wishes he could use capital punishment on wisecracking Al Czervik (Rodney Dangerfield). In addition to his lack of amusement with the antics of those around him, Smalls nearly kills a woman flinging his putter in disgust, and attempts to renege on a giant bet after ladies’ man Ty Webb (Chevy Chase) defeats him on the links. Still, Smalls speaks for curmudgeons the world over when he says, “You’ll get nothing and like it!”

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Brewmaster Smith, Strange Brew

It’s hard to see Max Von Sydow and not remember him as the svelte knight challenging Death to a chess match in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Well, unless the first time you ever saw him was as the villainous brewer in Strange Brew. To his credit, his role as evil Brewmaster Smith did involve its fair amount of strategy; by planting a drug in Elsinore beer that made the drinker docile and then prone to feral attacks, Smith had his sights set on world domination. With his off-accent and odd teeth, Smith made super villainy look easy, though every time he tested that beer he seemed to chew it. It’s okay. Turns out there’s nothing Hosehead the skunk dog can’t save us from.

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Melvin Udall, As Good As It Gets

Let’s be honest here: Jack Nicholson has made an entire career out of playing characters who are disagreeable and abrasive. At times, however, these characters find redemption and ultimately become lovable or, at least, likable; such is the case with As Good As It Gets, in which Nicholson plays Melvin Udall, an obsessive-compulsive writer who excels at creating discord. Not only does he constantly harass his favorite lunchtime waitress – and eventual love interest – Carol (Helen Hunt), he also verbally terrorizes his gay neighbor Simon (Greg Kinnear) and tosses Simon’s pet pup down the building’s trash chute out of spite. When circumstances place Melvin, Carol, and Simon together on a road trip, Melvin can’t help but sour the mood at every turn. He does come around eventually, but not before showing everyone just how nasty and mean-spirited he can be.

Warning: NSFW — language.

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Randolph and Mortimer Duke, Trading Places

At first glance, Randolph and Mortimer Duke (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche), brothers and co-bigwigs of a successful commodities brokerage firm, don’t appear to be particularly unkind or belligerent. They’re just a couple of stodgy old millionaires who look like they enjoy a nice sponge bath and a visit from the grandkids as much as any other septuagenarian. But their almost tender faces belie a more dastardly temperament, as evidenced by the following: in order to settle an argument between them, they fire a promising young broker (Dan Aykroyd) and throw him on the streets, simultaneously replacing him in the firm with a homeless hustler (Eddie Murphy), and sit back to observe the results. Sure, one could argue that while the broker got shafted, the hustler was given the opportunity of a lifetime, but when one considers that the Dukes have not only placed bets on who will be more successful, but also proceed to manipulate the two pawns’ lives in order to win, the full extent of their unapologetic misanthropy becomes apparent.

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Brick Top, Snatch

Many senior citizens spend their golden years in warm locales, playing shuffleboard or lounging by the pool. Not Brick Top (Alan Ford); this psychotic geezer spends the twilight of his life running a brutal unlicensed boxing federation and feeding those who cross him to the pigs. He’s also a proponent of torturing his enemies, and is an expert in the fine art of corpse disposal. With a Johnny Rotten stare, Elvis Costello glasses, and dialogue that flips on a dime between obscene and menacing, Brick Top is nobody’s idea of a kindly old man — and he isn’t a happy camper when pugilist Mickey O’Neill (Brad Pitt) is unwilling (or unable) to take a dive in the ring.

Warning: NSFW — language.

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Pai Mei, Kill Bill Vol. 2

Martial arts flicks are well known for featuring masters who are exceedingly strict with their pupils, and in the second volume of Quentin Tarantino’s revenge story Kill Bill, we’re given a glimpse into the harsh training of Beatrix Kiddo (Uma Thurman). Her teacher is Pai Mei (Gordon Liu), a fierce old man with a penchant for schadenfreude and a distaste not only for Americans, but for women as well. And rest assured, he makes no effort to mask this contempt, instructing Kiddo to hurl punches at blocks of wood until her knuckles burst open, then disciplining her for being unable to hold her chopsticks properly at mealtime. Pai Mei pushes Kiddo to her limits, beating and berating her to the point of physical and mental anguish whilst stroking his long beard. Of course, it’s really just an extreme case of tough love, as both master and student eventually come to respect one another, but that doesn’t mean Pai Mei wasn’t one mean old cuss.

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Emperor Palpatine, The Star Wars saga

Power-hungry, ruthless, wrinkly — Emperor Palpatine of the Star Wars trilogy isn’t just grumpy and old, he’s evil incarnate. Slithering through the ranks of the Federation, the erstwhile Darth Sidious goes from ambitious senator in Episode 1: The Phantom Menace to cloaked dictator in Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi thanks to his skillful manipulation of The Force and of powerful minions like Darth Vader. But Palpatine’s strengths aren’t just in Force lightning and saber skills — he takes particular, sociopathic glee in turning people against the ones they love most, playing on their greatest fears, and pushing Jedis toward the Dark Side. Plus, he built the Death Star — made for ruling the galaxy with an iron fist and blasting poor little rebel fighters into oblivion, never to dance to the “Yub Nub” again.

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Henry Potter, It’s a Wonderful Life

How vile does a guy have to be to drive George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), the good guy to end all good guys, to ponder a watery grave on Christmas Eve? Mr. Potter’s greed-mongering capitalist schemes threaten the life of Bedford Falls’ lone indie bank and, by extension, the homes and livelihoods of the town’s inhabitants. And yet, Potter claws for the reigning seat above the town’s homey community alone. Don’t cry too hard for him: he’s warmed by his stacks of money and snap-to-it minions. Potter’s grossest maneuver involves a tiny mob of press assembled in Bailey’s home (by his jammie-clad kids) to record his tragic downfall. Meanwhile, in George Bailey’s angel-induced nightmare, he sees Pottersville: a town where debauchery is the commonplace diversion from abject sadness. It may not look like a bad place to visit, but no town run by the world’s meanest old man could be a good place to hang your hat.

Read about Clint Eastwood’s best directorial efforts here. And check out the rest of our Total Recall archives here.

Finally, here’s a trio of guys trying to out-curmudgeon each other — Statler and Waldorf vs. Milton Berle on The Muppet Show:

Written by Tim Ryan, Ryan Fujitani, Sara Schieron, and Jen Yamato.

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