Lemmon plays a sports cameraman, and Matthau his ambulance-chasing lawyer brother in law. The film opens with Lemmons’ Harry Hinkle covering a Cleveland Browns game. Harry makes the mistake of getting a little too close to the action, and gets run over by a Browns punt returner. Knocked unconscious, he winds up in the hospital, and Matthau as seedy lawyer Whiplash Willie Gingrich is on him like a wolf on a lamb.
After coming to in hospital, Hinkle assures Willie that he’s fine and ready to go home, but Gingrich has other ideas.
“I hate to break it to you kid, but you’ve got a spinal injury!”
You see, Willie has visions of a big lawsuit dancing in his head, and needs Hinkle to play along. There’s a marvelous exchange in Harry’s hospital room where Willie outlines the plan to him. Hinkle isn’t interested in the fraud at first, but a fortuitous phone call sways him: A phone call from his ex-wife. She calls from New York to check on him, and while she’s expressing her concern, the camera pulls back to reveal a man in bed in the background. Harry hurls insults at her, but Willie is astute enough to see that he really still cares for her, and uses this as the carrot in front of his nose to get him to go along with the fraud.
There’s another plot thread that deserves mentioning, and that’s the relationship between Harry and Boom Boom Jackson, the football player who ran over him. Jackson is distraught over having caused Harry’s terrible, terrible injury, and essentially becomes his nurse. So now poor Harry has to go along with the charade in order to get his wife back, and have this poor athlete around all the time to fan his guilt.
Ron Rich plays Boom Boom, and this film is a rare instance where a black actor plays a character that needn’t be black. Jackson is an interesting character. He’s sensitive and kind, and he and Hinkle grow close in their time together, which of course exacerbates Harry’s guilt.
The Fortune Cookie, however, belongs to Walter Matthau. Whiplash Willie is a true movie original and it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing him. This guy is on alert all the time. He looks for angles everywhere, lest he miss out on a big score. There’s a hilarious scene where the lawyers for the other side have a huddle, and Wilder makes a point of showing us their vast, neat office with row upon row of law books. They call Gingrich and we see Willie working in a cramped little office piled high with papers. They try to set up an appointment, and Willie scans several blank pages in his schedule book before setting up the appointment.
The big law firm, knowing Willies reputation, sets up surveillance of Harry’s apartment, hoping to catch him at his fraud, but Willie is one step ahead of them, finding the bugs and the hidden camera. So they’re watching, but Willie knows they’re watching, and they don’t know that Willie knows. Got that?
Things are then complicated further by the arrival of Sandy, Harry’s ex-wife, played by Judi West. We’ve already had reason to doubt her motives, based on the dude on the bed mentioned earlier, but there’s another clue when she arrives. Harry comments that she still does her hair the way he likes it, when we have just seen her arrange it in the car on the way to the apartment. My favorite bit in The Fortune Cookie is of Sandy’s first night back, where Sandy goes off to bed, and poor Harry who wants to join her oh-so-badly has to sit there holding a candle. The way he holds the candle is a sly little way of telling us what’s going through his mind at that moment.
Willie has actually succeeded in pulling it off, when the investigator manages to trip things up with a last minute gambit. At this point, all of Sandy’s cards come out on the table, and she remarks to Harry “I could have gotten $ 20000 just for exposing you!” The settlement cheque gets torn up, but Willie, always working the angles has the last word. He launches into a tirade against the big law firm and the private dick that spied on them, laying out his next wild lawsuit. Across the street, the private eye listens in, amused.