‘Going in Style’ Without Substance

Zach Braff (Warner Bros.)—1.5 Stars

Michael Caine is old. “Going in Style” establishes this helpful information early: In the first scene, when Caine’s Joe Harding sits in the waiting area of his brilliantly lit bank and the receptionist calls his number, he struggles to get up, a classically old-person thing to do. We quickly learn that Caine’s co-stars, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin, are old too. The trio’s octogenarian characters, former steelworkers, play bocce in New York parks, eat unappetizing meals at their lodge, and make curmudgeonly comments about “The Bachelorette.”

It’s a good thing we learn these characters’ backgrounds so early, because the humor in this featherweight comedy overwhelmingly relies on it. Old men spend a lot of time in the bathroom. They move slowly. They’re set in their ways. They’re baffled by inflation. Luckily, these three all have vibrant family lives. Caine walks his plucky granddaughter (Joey King) to school, Freeman talks to his on Skype, and Arkin reluctantly falls in love with a grocery store proprietor (Ann-Margaret). Aside from being Hollywood-cheeky, Caine’s Joe and Freeman’s Willie have only one distinguishing feature: age. (Arkin’s Albert gets a bit more personality as a constant complainer, a role right up Arkin’s alley.) Christopher Lloyd, who is also old, gamely plays an even older man in their lodge, providing jokes about even older people—confusion, paranoia, hearing loss—as well as a nearly literal specter of what awaits the trio in a few years.

The premise of the 1979 “Going in Style,” starring George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg, was essentially that three old guys decide to rob a bank to break the monotony of their retirement. Upon succeeding, they head to Vegas, but the authorities are close behind. Overcome with stress, Strasberg and, later, Carney die, and Burns is jailed. In the 2017 update, screenwriter Theodore Melfi, who also wrote “Hidden Figures” and “St. Vincent,” seems to have made every effort to lighten the tone, lower the stakes, sweeten the comedy, and generally iron out any complexity found in Martin Brest’s original. This time, the bank they rob is their own, and it’s foreclosing Joe’s house using a fraudulent mortgage. But even this much moral ambiguity was apparently too much: The same bank is also responsible for eliminating their steelworker pensions. In need of even more justification, Melfi makes Willie need an expensive kidney transplant and paints every bank employee as a greedy, sniveling coward. Without spoiling too much, let’s just say the remake’s characters generally find much, much happier endings than their counterparts in the original. As a result, their character arcs flatten into oblivion. The only lessons learned are that robbing a bank is really easy and that love is real.

Zach Braff, who previously directed the cult classics “Garden State” and “Wish I Was Here,” builds tension pretty successfully in the scenes heading into the climactic robbery. The robbery scene itself, however, stretches to an absurd length, which might be less of a problem if the characters had not repeatedly discussed the brevity of their window. The spectacularly incompetent FBI bases their case on a toddler picking Morgan Freeman out of a lineup. In one of the most painfully predictable and drawn-out scenes in this surprise-free movie, the toddler lies him out of trouble because his watch has a picture of his granddaughter. Braff fills every quiet moment with aggressive emotional cues from Rob Simonsen’s generic heist-comedy score. He uses that technique for cheap effect in the third act: He first feigns the protagonist’s discovery by the FBI, and then the death of a major character. A change in music or a zoom-out later, the audiences realize they’ve been played for fools. It’s rather funny in a cynical way, but it also draws attention to the sugarcoating of the plot and threatens our suspended disbelief. Braff and cinematographer Rodney Charters meet Melfi with equal saccharinity, filling every frame with Easter-candy color. Scenes transition with strange sitcom-meets-heist cuts, and Braff awkwardly intercuts “security camera” shots for little effect.

Largely thanks to its cast, “Going in Style” does not waste all of its tight 96-minute run time. Caine, Freeman, and especially Arkin find laughs and occasional moments of humanity in their lines, and the entertainment value of watching Caine and Freeman smoke pot on screen is undeniable. Kenan Thompson delights in his brief appearance. Jeremy Shinder, who played a similarly pudgy and difficult New York tween in “Louie,” delivers two of the funniest moments in the movie. And although he doesn’t find much novel insight, Melfi’s script reflects the diversity of attitudes towards aging even within a single individual, particularly through Arkin’s character. But funnier old-guy movies with smarter plots, more heart, and, yes, more style abound.

—Crimson staff writer Trevor J. Levin can be reached at trevor.levin@thecrimson.com

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