Stand Up Guys brings together Oscar-winners Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin – three gentlemen with more than 150 years of experience gesticulating in the movies – but does it use them for more than geriatric comedy and thematic reminiscing about the bygone age of cinema (where tough guys cracked heads and took names according to their internal moral compass)?
The picture opens with Val (Pacino) leaving prison after completing a 28-year stint, with his friend and fellow ex-gangster retiree Doc (Walken) waiting to greet him at the gate. Following a few detours that include Russian hookers, pharmacy robbery and a pit-stop at Doc’s favorite diner, the pair break out their former getaway driver Hirsch (Arkin) from the old folk’s home, to join them for a night of living life to the fullest – operating with the knowledge their time is limited, by forces other than just Mother Nature.
Stand Up Guys rejects the crime/gangster genre’s post-Tarantino tendencies, by forgoing the surface-deep pastiche and self-satisfied hipness found in so many Pulp Fiction wannabes released over the last two decades. Sure, self-awareness arises through the casting of Godfather trilogy and Scarface icon Pacino alongside Walken (the Pulp Fiction alum and scene-stealer in the Tarantino-scripted True Romance), but those meta qualities do not overshadow the significance of thematic reflections on diminishing cultural values. Here, for example, the written conversations aren’t striving for quotability, they’re about serving the characters in their ruminating on the nature and meaning of a criminal’s existence.
The script from relative newcomer Noah Haidle attempts to make that meditative cinema more palpable by splicing in some conventional senior citizen-based humor (libido jokes, a modern car technology gag, etc.). Is it a perfect union? Well, no; it results in a film that often wobbly oscillates between Space Cowboys territory – or rather, Clint Eastwood’s version of Grumpy Old Men – and a timeless, but tender, drama that doesn’t feel like a self-aware throwback to socially-conscious 1970s material (but very much is). However, at the end of the day, the good outweighs the bad.
Director Fisher Stevens – a character actor some might remember from 1990s TV series such as Early Edition and Key West (or, going further back, Ben in the Short Circuit movies) – working with cinematographer Michael Grady (Notorious, Faster) creates a painterly technique of an unspecific sense of time, place and mood. The film’s nice-and-clean camerawork, muted colors and quiet night atmosphere are simple and non-flashy, much like the performances of its elderly stars. Indeed, the visual style is complimented by equally solid editing from Mark Livolsi, a former assistant editor to Woody Allen (before he moved onto stuff like Wedding Crashers and The Blind Side).
Walken, Pacino and Arkin are saddled with old man jokes, some of which are clever in their satirizing of gangster concepts about impotence (be it physical or mental) and reliance on chemical enhancements; others, however, are just an excuse to watch screen icons mess around with Viagra and kvetch about their age. The leads handle these weaker moments with as much assurance and ease as the dramatic beats where they express remorse and guilt. In lesser hands, such a balancing act could have turned out a disaster; fortunately, these fellows know what they are doing. (Shocking, right?)
Supporting players Julianna Margulies (The Good Wife), Lucy Punch (Bad Teacher), Mark Margolis (Breaking Bad), Addison Timlin (Californication) and Vanessa Ferlito (Death Proof) occupy characters that represent nostalgia, regret, vengeance and redemption for the film’s three wise guys; though, devoting more time to allowing them to shine (be it for dramatic or light-hearted effect) might have strengthened their roles on both an immediate and metaphorical level. Instead, they make for fleeting, but welcome, distractions from the routine old crook shenanigans. “Close enough,” Pacino’s character might say.
The people behind Stand Up Guys get caught up in stereotypical old-timer laughs (including, an outdated catch-phrase), but its principal cast shakes that off and make the experience more fulfilling and artistically-accomplished than expected. Indeed, the characters even acknowledge the predictability of what happens to them (re: the plot), but the actors playing them choose to enjoy the ride, instead of complaining. In the end, that’s what makes the difference.
Check out the trailer for Stand Up Guys (in case you’re still not sure if this is your sort of movie):
Stand Up Guys is now playing in semi-limited release. It is 95 minutes long and Rated R for language, sexual content, violence and brief drug use.