By Preston Wilder
The bank robber is a principled man. “It is a culture’s duty to take care of its elderly,” he proclaims, robbing a bank but refusing to take any money from Joe (Michael Caine), who happens to be in the bank. Hollywood, too, has a duty to take care of its elderly – and, having lavished four Oscars over the years on Caine, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin, it can’t now pretend in good conscience that they don’t exist. After all, there’s no mandatory retirement age for movie stars. They can keep going as long as they like, or as long as people want to watch them. To quote a recent film title by another septuagenarian, rules don’t apply.
All well and good; but what exactly should these veterans do, in the twilight of their illustrious careers? The usual answer is to put them in comedy – not rude or outrageous comedy but feelgood, placid, very mildly saucy comedy, where they can josh and banter for the amusement of fans their own age (the so-called ‘grey dollar’). This is seen as an undemanding way for ageing stars to keep in practice while coasting pleasantly – though I actually wonder if it’s really so undemanding, even compared to taking on some meaty dramatic role. After all, it’s surely easier to play Nelson Mandela (or whatever) than to speak some of the clunky exchanges in Going in Style and make them sound witty. The bank robbers moved “like a dance”, muses Caine wistfully; “A conga line, right into prison,” replies acerbic Freeman. “I’m thinking of robbing a bank”; “Oh. I’m thinking of buying a Ferrari!”
That’s the plot, incidentally, three old geezers – Joe, Willie and Albert – planning a bank robbery, inspired by that principled robber who refused to take Joe’s money. The film itself is inspired by a 1979 film with the same title, featuring the less-starry trio (though two of them were indeed Oscar winners) of George Burns, Lee Strasberg and Art Carney. I don’t recall much about the original, but I do recall a scene where Strasberg’s character talked of having spanked his son unfairly when the son was a child, and how badly it made him feel in retrospect – the kind of painful dramatic scene that’s conspicuous by its absence here. There’s some drama, certainly, but it’s easy drama, the pathos of Willie (that’s Freeman) being told he doesn’t have long to live, or the ‘You go, oldie!’ uplift of Joe telling off his deadbeat son-in-law. “Act like a man,” he urges. “Even if you have to fake it.”
Fakery is part of the DNA here, the script leaving few clichés untapped. The robbery is preceded, inevitably, by a ‘training montage’ with thumping music and an on-screen countdown (our heroes have just 20 days to learn the fine points of bank-robbing) capped, inevitably, by Joe turning to the other two for a final sentimental flourish: “Been a hell of a time planning a heist with you!”. The 70s Going in Style provides the title but the model is perhaps a more recent, wildly successful comedy, viz. Horrible Bosses – another tale of a very unlikely trio venturing into a life of crime, including a bit where they seek “professional help” from lowlifes and drug dealers. You may wonder if the film will resist the inevitable scene where the senior citizens get high on weed, followed closely by the munchies. Then again, do you really have to wonder?
Astonishingly, Going in Style is enjoyable. This is the third script I’ve seen by Theodore Melfi, the other two (which he also directed) being St. Vincent and Hidden Figures; he seems to have found the happy knack of creating films that unfold exactly as you’d expect, yet somehow avoid being offensively derivative. Partly it’s because he knows how to lob soft balls for excellent actors to smash – St. Vincent, in particular, was a perfect Bill Murray vehicle – partly because the pace is brisk, partly because everything is so unabashedly predictable that you stop expecting originality and enjoy the film for what it is.
Here are incidental digs at hipster targets like baristas and vegan pumpkin pie. Here’s some harmless slapstick, with the old guys trying to shoplift and being chased by security – though here too is some social comment, with our salt-of-the-earth heroes taking revenge on the bankers and one-percenters who stole their pensions. There’s absolutely nothing first-rate (or even better-than-average) about Going in Style. There’s not even any style, beyond the occasional nice shot of burnt-orange light against a blue night sky. Still, as long as Caine, Freeman and Arkin want to keep going – even if it’s just to bicker comically, and trade unoriginal banter about how decrepit the other is – we should allow them this late-in-life luxury. It’s not just our choice; it’s our duty.
DIRECTED BY Zach Braff
STARRING Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Alan Arkin, Ann-Margret
US 2017 96 mins