By Noah Gittell
Do you find it funny when an elderly person engages in petty theft? When they do drugs? When they have enthusiastic, energetic sex? If so, you’ll love “Going in Style,” a minimally amusing remake of the 1979 cult favorite, starring George Burns, about a trio of elderly friends who rob a bank. The new version adds a surface layer of topicality to its clichéd narrative skeleton. The friends, played by Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin, have lost their pensions due to corporate maneuvering. They are America’s forgotten working-class, but the film doesn’t take their plight seriously. “A society has a responsibility to take care of its elderly,” says one character, but the film doesn’t mean it. It’s more interested in laughing at the idea that older people can be just as irresponsible as teen-agers.
Still, the reason films like “Going in Style” – and there are many others in the old-folks-behaving-badly canon – remain watchable is because they routinely cast Hollywood’s best and most experienced actors. Michael Caine hasn’t anchored a big Hollywood film since “Secondhand Lions” in 2003, and he does a remarkable job here as Joe, a grandfather and widower who comes up with the idea of robbing a bank after surviving a similar heist. After he and his friends calculate the severity of their financial future without a pension to rely on, he convinces them that a robbery is their only chance forward – and if they fail, well, at least they’ll get free room and board for the rest of their lives.
As Joe, Caine uses his full arsenal of acting styles, playing the kindly grandfather, loyal friend, and, in a few key moments, even the Cockney lowlife he first became famous for in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He’s certainly most believable as a criminal, while Freeman turns in another lazy performance as Willie, Joe’s best friend. It’s not quite clear why Freeman ever turned to comedy in the first place, as he has no particular talent for it or comedic persona to display. Perhaps it’s because the only role Hollywood has to offer for senior citizens these days. To wit, Arkin turns out a similar performance to his work in “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Stand-Up Guys.” Unlike Freeman, however, the power of his deadpan personality makes him fun to watch even when offering a less-than-unique performance.
Beyond the significant star power on display, there is little to recommend, as the film proceeds along achingly predictable lines. After Joe survives a bank robbery in the first scene, the seed is planted, but it takes a series of misfortunes for him to convince his friends to join him in planning their own caper. First, their pension fund gets dissolved after a corporate merger. Then, Joe’s mortgage rate skyrockets after his “teaser rate” expires.
Finally, Willie receives a dire medical prognosis, and the two of them convince Albert (Arkin) to join them. Following a clichéd training sequence that involves a trial run at a local supermarket, a visit with a local drug dealer in which the characters end up with the “munchies,” and a mercifully brief trip to the shooting range, they’re off to the bank to make their illicit withdrawal. The heist and its tense aftermath are directed with sharp playfulness by Zach Braff, who, after a pair of bizarre indie films (“Garden State” and “Wish I Was Here”) may have a future making mediocre studio comedies.
In the end, we can complain about the film’s unoriginality, its lazy cliches about the elderly, and perhaps even its lack of a reason to exist at all, but the difficult truth is that “Going in Style” basically achieves what it sets out to. It doesn’t aspire to change the world or tell us anything new about the plight of the elderly. It picks a few pieces of low-hanging fruit and asks us all to share in a satisfying, warmly familiar meal. It won’t satisfy you for long, but maybe that doesn’t matter. Who knows how much time any of us really have left?
My Rating: Put it on your Queue