For a movie so fixated on going out with nobility, Stand Up Guys is an awfully ignoble pursuit for Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, and Alan Arkin. These are gifted actors, men capable of outstanding drama and wonderful comedy, yet the film isn’t quite sure if they should be honored or mocked. It’s frustrating to watch them be dragged around by a broad script and some questionable direction, especially because the story occasionally (if accidentally) stumbles into halfway decent ideas. The plot is a mostly workable if recycled bit about revenge, regret, and moving on, but it also has some of the most embarrassing body humor outside an Adam Sandler production. It’s got room for a solid premise about friendship and age, but it’s also a maudlin and tone-deaf tale about men trying to apologize to their estranged daughters. It stars three of the most talented actors of their generation, but it also wastes them in a story that doesn’t do any of them justice. It’s a hard movie to really hate, but it’s all too easy to ignore.
Most of the problems stem from director Fisher Stevens’ inability to come up with a consistent tone. He’s not going for a mix of comedy and drama, but rather, he’s swinging hard at both and missing most of the time. It’s daunting to try and dance between the two (there’s a reason so few people can be Woody Allen, or Edgar Wright), and Fisher never finds a graceful way to do it. For instance, the core of the plot deals with recently paroled Val (Pacino), out of the joint after 28 years, and the day and night he spends with former partner in crime Doc (Walken). Val went up when a job went wrong, and he’d wound up killing the son of his boss, Claphands (Mark Margolis). Claphands let him live and serve his sentence, though, just to take pleasure in killing him as an old man, and Doc’s been contracted to do the job. This crime story, though, is stapled to an awkward sex comedy that revolves for a while around Val’s desire to sleep with a prostitute and his subsequent inability to maintain an erection, which leads to Val and Doc robbing a drugstore, which leads to Val swallowing a fistful of Viagra, which eventually leads to a trip to the ER where the man who played Michael Corleone lies on a bed and whines as the camera holds steady focus on the sheet tented above his crotch. It’s a sad, low moment, and not just for the people on screen.
The film’s sexuality is defined by such juvenile perspectives, and by its inability to understand anything other than a jokey viewpoint thrust upon a few old men. The film takes place over the course of a long night during which Val and Doc liberate their old friend, Hirsch (Arkin), from a retirement home and bomb around town in an attempt to remember the glory days. At one point, having stolen a car from a younger gang, they find a naked woman (Vanessa Ferlito) tied and gagged in the trunk. She tells them that she accepted a ride from one of the thugs only to be taken to a warehouse where she was stripped, adding that Val and Doc “can figure out the rest.” This is probably the most casual and noncommittal way a rape victim ever talked about her situation in a film, and that she does so over a plate of scrambled eggs while the men hatch a one-off revenge scheme says all you need to know about the movie’s attachment to reality. Despite being hobbled by age and demonstrably able to do much of anything without medicine and a significant head start, Val and Doc still mount a successful assault on the thugs’ poorly guarded compound, letting the woman get the final payback with a baseball bat.
In other words, this isn’t so much a movie as it as a series of wish-fulfillment sequences, ones that are made all the more lamentable for the fact that the film, deep down, has some good ideas and a gifted cast. The problem is that the script from first-time feature writer Noah Haidle is overloaded by half, and so dedicated on cribbing from the last 30 years of movie culture that it utterly fails to establish its own voice or presence. It’s also remarkably hypocritical: the central characters complain almost constantly about the aches and pains they’re suffering, yet they’re still stronger and quicker than men half their age. In other words, the script hopes that by having the characters mention a complication, we won’t notice that said complication doesn’t actually exist. It would’ve been amazing if these men had worried about being past their prime and then actually had to deal with the consequences of it, but no such luck. Even the ending is never in doubt, though for a tantalizing few seconds I wondered (hoped, prayed) that we’d see something fresh. Stevens’ visual direction is similarly middle of the road, opting for bare-bones shots and awkward pacing that never give the viewer a real sense of place. It’s shot and ostensibly set in L.A., but there’s zero sense of scope or atmosphere, and it might as well be some Toronto backlot for all the shine Stevens brings to the screen.
And so I find myself wondering: what am I looking for here? What is anyone looking for? It’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy for movies like this to be dumped in the dark days of winter, which seems to be the time of year studios clean house with low-risk, low-expectation titles like this or Broken City. Am I wrong to expect something different this time of year? Or am I being too harsh, too unforgiving, on movies like this one, whose only goal is to distract you from your life for 90 minutes? I think the answers to those last two questions are “yes” and “no.” Yes, because this really is a grim time of year for Hollywood, and it has been for quite some time now. Their business is still focused on awards promotion, so there’s a degree to which they aren’t quite up to the game of pushing out new content. But I don’t think I’m being too harsh on mediocre, limping movies like Stand Up Guys, either. We know in this moment that it’s a January dump, but that shouldn’t have anything to do with the heart and soul that go into making it. There’s no curve to the grading scale in winter. Things do not get easier or dumber simply because we just came through a patch of awards bait. What hurts so much about Stand Up Guys is that we’re expected to feel grateful for it, to sit up and notice that these crumpled titans have been brought together for another outing, however regrettable. And I can’t. It’s a sad, occasionally cringe-inducing movie that pays lip service to things like dignity and grace while treating its characters and viewers with as little consideration as possible. We deserve better. We always do.