Lemmon is torn between doing the right thing and making a pile of money. To help convince Lemmon, Matthau arranges for Lemmon's hottie ex-wife, Judi West, to return to Cleveland to nurse the still enamored Jack Lemmon.
Meanwhile, Rich is so wracked with guilt over what he purportedly did to Lemmon that he befriends him and serves as his cook, rehabilitation trainer, and personal assistant. He also hits the bottle.
Matthau's scheme is going well, but to collect Lemmon must prevent Cliff Osmond, a private eye hired by the insurance company, from proving that Lemmon is faking his paralysis. Harry Holcombe, Les Tremayne, and Lauren Gilbert are stereotypical grasping insurance executives. Maryesther Denver plays Lemmon's homely middle-aged nurse, Sig Ruman shows up as a suspicious European doctor, William Christopher of "M*A*S*H" celebrity is a young doctor, and Keith Jackson is (what else?) a football announcer.
How others will see it. The Fortune Cookie fared well with critics and audiences. Walter Matthau recovered from a heart attack suffered during production to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. The film received three other Oscar nominations, including one for its screenplay, co-written by Wilder and his long-time collaborator I.A.L. Diamond.
The user ratings at imdb.com are fairly high, and consistent across age groups. Women like it slightly less than men, perhaps disapproving of Judi West's golddigger character.
How I felt about it. The Fortune Cookie was important in the career of Matthau, who was formerly known for unsavory or vaguely menacing straight men (A Face in the Crowd, Charade, Fail-Safe). Lemmon may have been the first to grasp that Matthau's acerbic onscreen persona was ideal for comedy.
Audiences enjoyed the chemistry between the easily agitated Lemmon and the laconic, dour Matthau, and the two actors made an additional ten films together over the next 30 years, through Grumpier Old Men. They are together in the hereafter as well, with Matthau, Lemmon, and Wilder dying in consecutive years between 2000 and 2002.
In The Fortune Cookie, Walter Matthau benefits from a consistent character. He's amoral and greedy, the perfect foil for the detectives, businessmen, and doctors who are exasperated by his gamesmanship.
Lemmon is less successful. Reminiscent of Some Like it Hot, he takes surreal pleasure in another identity, as a paralyzed man here instead of a cross-dresser. Is he an honest man too easily given to bad advice from Matthau and West, or is he just as bad as Matthau, and simply protesteth too much? Eventually, Lemmon does rise from his wheelchair, if only to defend his boyfriend (which Rich practically becomes) from a taunt best relegated to the schoolyard. This ending appears tacked on to please moralists and studio censors. We know that they actually cash the insurance check and live merrily ever after.
As it is, the ending is a downer for a comedy. Lemmon and Rich are unemployed and have established respective career reputations as a con artist and a drunken brawler. The hottie wife is gone. But at least Lemmon and Rich have each other, much like Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman in the ending of The Shawshank Redemption. True love found at last.