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Since America has no tradition of respect for older people, its popular representations of that huge segment of the citizenry tend to be muddled at best. At worst, you get something like Ron Howard’s contemptuous Cocoon, the gold standard of warm-fuzzy-oldsters movies, and the cruelest of the lot. Howard proposed that his elderly characters were just immobile skin bags who worshiped youth as sedulously as the young worship themselves, and that they were only happy when “rejuvenated,” which required scenes so patently fake they only served to highlight the inability of the actors to perform degrading and strenuous stunts. Another gambit is to treat the old with such towering dignity that any individuality topples beneath the weight (The Whales of August, Driving Miss Daisy, On Golden Pond).

It is possible to make a movie about older people that works on a different value system from a better set of priorities. Just not, apparently, a movie that anyone will go see. 1993’s excellent The Cemetery Club was overlooked (perhaps it was the name?), but Bill Duke showed that making a good movie about people over 50 who don’t act like people under 50 wasn’t out of the question. Those with their eyes on the country’s entertainment trends—and this includes that segment of Hollywood with green-light power—fancy America as a vast, Bermuda-shorted, fannypacked, soft drink-guzzling expanse, where notions of fun from Nintendo to Tom Clancy to Yellowstone Park transcend chronological boundaries. But the discomfort with age qua age is still there. The easiest way for America to reckon with the elderly is to sentimentalize them, and the only way it can sentimentalize them is to infantilize them.

Martha Coolidge’s quickie buddy comedy Out to Sea isn’t contemptuous, but it is loaded with poopy jokes and pratfalls and odd-couple-as-gay-couple japes which, to Coolidge’s credit, feel forced and obligatory. The plot is riddled with logical leaps and unexplained gaps, but it follows low-rent moocher and gambling man Charlie Gordon (Walter Matthau) as he wins big at the track and is promptly forced to surrender his winnings as partial payment of an even bigger debt. Charlie is a schemer who uses his fusty charm and patient, unshockable demeanor to cadge money and ignore collectors, but this time he’s caught too short. He shows up at the door of his brother-in-law, Herb (Jack Lemmon), with two tickets for a swank Caribbean cruise. Charlie aims to bag a rich broad on board, but Herb wants to be left alone to mourn the death of his wife and prize-winning dance partner, Susie.

Once aboard, Charlie confesses (far too slowly; he rather enjoys stringing it out) that the two are actually hired help—dance hosts who cruise for free so long as they twirl female passengers around the dance floor and offer heavy doses of gallantry along with their fancy footwork. Canny old Charlie, of course, can’t dance a step. Under the gimlet eye of tyrannical, ambitious cruise director Gil Godwyn (Brent Spiner, looking here and there like a tanned Jeffrey Jones), Charlie skulks around the ship trying to avoid the dance floor and put himself in the way of a rich, sexy Texan (Dyan Cannon).

Herb, too, is trying to keep his part-time occupation a secret, since he has fallen for a sensitive widow (Gloria DeHaven) and won’t even explain that he’s not the doctor his pal claimed. Vivian, for her part, “hates doctors,” a romantic complication that is just annoying, offered as it is without explanation or apology, as if we need a reason to want her to like him for what he is. She has to actively dislike what he is not.

In between such shipboard antics as slipping, falling, squiring fat women around the dance floor, squiring randy women around the dance floor, and arguing sitcomishly about the situation in their cramped crew cabin, Herb and Charlie are supposed to end up, along with the rest of the ship, at the foot of Chichen Itza to witness a solar eclipse.

Robert Nelson Jacobs’ script keeps lobbing bodily function jokes at us when it’s least appropriate—it requires a shipload of unlikely pottymouths. But when the camera isn’t following the leads’ sour-but-dumb romantic entanglements, appealing bits fill up the corners: Spiner’s demented lounge Mussolini act, Donald O’Connor and Hal Linden as a couple of navy-blazered dance-floor smoothies, Rue McClanahan (becomingly blond) as the ship’s owner, and Elaine Stritch as flamboyant, straight-shooting, spanking-new Texas money.

Lemmon doesn’t disgrace himself, but he’s given the duller of the two characters, and between his bland niceness and pale, puddingy looks, he fades away even while onscreen. Matthau gets the choice lines and the more rambunctious girl, not to mention an insane wardrobe of plaids, patterns, and Sans-a-Belt stretch. As unlikely as his romance with someone like Cannon may seem, the two of them pull it off. She reacts to his poker-faced cracks and extravagant gestures with a big dirty laugh, and it’s almost possible to forget that she looks like a scary blond spider.

Cannon’s presence is the most problematic: She’s so hitched and cinched and sculpted and stretched taut that she argues against the age that this movie is supposed to be, if not celebrating, at least indulging. In a wardrobe that includes white slacks underpinned only by thong panties and years of StairMaster, a little-nothing bikini with sheer black robe, and tummy-baring shirts tied at the sternum, Cannon’s body trumpets its preservation insistently, loudly, distractingly. It’s great to see that she’s kept her nice legs and all but, jeez, for her first scene she doesn’t even bother with pants.

When it’s crude, Out to Sea feels like it’s working, but the rest of the time it’s rambling and low-key—generally amiable, even if it doesn’t exactly sear itself onto the memory. It isn’t any advertisement for cruise ships, which is nice; It looks like a herky-jerky fortnight of forced fun: hideous, overstuffed spectacle heralded as entertainment, and mind-numbing amounts of food. Still, where else can you hear Brent Spiner getting down to “Oye Como Va”? Only in your nightmares.CP