Film Review: ‘Going in Style’

Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin are the actors you want to see as Brooklyn codgers who rob a bank, but this remake of the 1979 caper substitutes shtick for experience.

In “Going in Style,” the 1979 Hollywood fable of old age in America that’s still remembered with a certain scrappy fondness, George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg play brittle old fogies who team up to rob a bank, but it wouldn’t be quite accurate to call the result “a heist movie.” The three hatch their crime as a way to escape loneliness, and to get their juices flowing — to rage against the dying of the light — and the robbery itself is mostly a ramshackle joke, with our cranky stooped codgers barely disguised by Groucho glasses.

The slick new remake of “Going in Style,” on the other hand, really is a heist movie. Our heroes, now played by Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin, team up to rob the Williamsburg Savings Bank in their native Brooklyn, and we see them prepping for the crime in a full-on, split-screen montage of strategic training rituals. They work out a meticulous alibi, mingling with friends during a charity carnival and slipping away just long enough to execute the robbery. And when they finally enter the bank, wearing rubber masks of the Rat Pack (Frank, Dino, and Sammy), they don’t carry themselves like old folks. They could be veteran crooks out of any of the hundreds of heist films made over the last decades. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to watch the crime — there’s a satisfaction to seeing a heist executed without a hitch — but at the new “Going in Style,” we’re less in the real world than we are in Movie World, a place of processed crime and processed drama.

The movie is a feel-good concoction: not a terrible way to spend 96 minutes, but not an entertainment experience that anyone’s going to remember in 38 years, or maybe even next week. The picture was directed by Zach Braff, who as a filmmaker has only two features to his credit, the soulful romantic cult film “Garden State” (2004) and the navel-gazing SoCal mess “Wish I Was Here” (2014). After the debacle of that last film, Braff, in theory, was right to sign up as a gun for hire on a crowdpleaser like this one. If only he’d brought it a bit more personality and panache! Rocked the boat a little! “Going in Style” coasts along on the testy spiky charms of its leading men, who have 246 years of life on earth between them (Caine is 84, Freeman 79, and Arkin 83), but this is nothing more than an amiable connect-the-dots movie. If anything, it makes the 1979 “Going in Style” look even more audacious, like a comedy about three King Lears.

The new version draws on up-to-the-minute themes of economic outrage, but in a way that’s so cautious and market-tested it’s as if the filmmakers had pushed a button marked “add incendiary topical issue here.” Joe (Caine), Willie (Freeman), and Albert (Arkin) are old pals who toiled together for decades at the Wechsler Steel Co. and are now living on comfortable — if modest — pensions. Joe is putting up his divorced daughter and granddaughter, so that they can save for college; Willie and Albert are roommates who have shared a house for 25 years. But their lives come tumbling down when Wechsler, following a corporate merger, ships its manufacturing overseas and dissolves its pension fund.

There’s more than enough ripped-from-the-news material here to root “Going in Style” in the current moment, but one of the problems with the movie is that by checking off these issues, the film acts as if it’s done its dramatic work. What it doesn’t do is give the characters an individualized sense of having emerged from the past. They’re just Grumpy Old Sitcom Men.

But often irresistible ones. Caine is the star who makes a slightly deeper impression. His Joe is the group’s ringleader, and that’s because he has had to endure a double scandal: In addition to the trashing of his pension (which, if our government were less tethered to corporate money, would be unambiguously illegal), he got suckered by the bank into a radically adjustable mortgage, which has shot up to the point that he’s about to lose his home. Caine, who has done many middling movies but isn’t capable of phoning in a performance even when he’s trying to, reacts to all of this with a witty cold anger that is only heightened by age. Freeman, whose character is more or less defined by his need for a kidney transplant, is the mellow one, and Arkin, as the whistling-past-the-gallows Albert, seems the most hopeless — at least, until he gets caught up in a flirtation with Annie, played by Ann-Margret, who at 75 still has her extraordinary saucy radiance. Let’s call their romance a senior-citizen fairy tale.

Who is the audience for “Going in Style”? Adults, older or not, who want to see a caper movie pitched to the bucket-list set. Yet it’s worth recalling that in 1979, at least one member of the cast of “Going in Style” — Burns — was in the midst of a career revival that straddled all demos. (That same year, he costarred with Brooke Shields in “Just You and Me, Kid.”) Caine, Freeman, and Arkin are actors who long ago proved that they transcend age. But the “Going in Style” remake is an example of how “likable” prefab filmmaking can shoot itself in the foot. The movie will probably find a modest audience for a weekend or two, but it could have been so much bigger if it didn’t reduce senior citizens to sympathetic data cards. If it truly gave us something to see.

ATSUSHI NISHIJIMA/MGM/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK





What is Zach Braff doing behind the camera of the old-dudes comedy Going In Style?

In the mushy geriatric yuk-fest Going In Style, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin decide to rob a bank. Well, okay, so it’s not the actors literally, but their characters—three struggling New York retirees—plotting the big score. But even in an onscreen world where Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin don’t exist, these guys would have some serious trouble disguising themselves. No mask is going to totally muffle Caine’s imitable cockney accent, Arkin’s cranky bellow, or especially Freeman’s soothing, sonorous voice. Cram the trio onto a perp lineup (or identity parade, as Caine might call it), and witnesses would remember each of them upon syllable one.

The actors’ dignity, too, isn’t so easily muffled. They’ve done enough commercial crap over the years, all three of them, to know how to walk away mostly unscathed from a tacky mainstream comedy—hell, even to score a few grace notes between laugh lines. Not that Going In Style doesn’t try to waste their talent. This is a movie that can think of nothing funnier than arranging three Oscar winners in front of a TV to make catty remarks about The Bachelorette. It’s a movie that delights at giving one of its elderly stars the munchies and letting another just say the word “munchies.” In a particularly dopey sequence, the characters attempt a dry-run shoplifting of their local supermarket, just for practice—a set piece that ends with Caine zooming down the street on a motorized cart, throwing groceries at the employee in hot pursuit, while Freeman screams from his perch in the basket. There are probably worse uses of our veteran movie stars. But during a scene like that one, it’s hard to think of any.

Still, the bar for these kind of old-guys-behaving-badly movies has been set very low. Is it grading on a curve to be pleasantly surprised by the lack of Viagra jokes? As written by Theodore Melfi, of Hidden Figures fame, Going In Style is more terminally mild than crassly stupid. The film is a remake of a minor classic: Martin Brest’s 1979 comedy, starring George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg as the bank-robbing geezers. In all ways possible, that was a tougher, richer movie. It had the nerve to actually confront its characters with their own mortality, and to present their turn to crime as an escape from the boredom and loneliness of their retirement-community lives. The new Going In Style bends over backwards to justify the old dodgers’ scheme, pitting the three against the villainous bank that’s pilfered their pensions. Melfi also supplies his budding thieves with their own tidy subplots: Joe (Caine) trying to save the home he shares with his daughter and plucky granddaughter (Joey King); Willie (Freeman) concealing a dire medical diagnosis; Albert (Arkin) entertaining the advances of an admirer (Ann-Margret, back in the business of romancing grumpy old men).

It’s probably worth noting that the whippersnapper behind the camera is none other than one-time sitcom star and indie darling Zach Braff. Did he owe someone a favor, or is this his attempt to break into the studio system he scorned with his last feature, the gooey Kickstarted passion project Wish I Was Here? Anyone looking for Garden State echoes will have to suffice with a couple of conspicuous needle drops and a few ostentatious tricks during the heist-planning montage. Otherwise, Braff is working for hire, anonymously delivering the mugging cameos (Kenan Thompson; an overbearingly over-the-top Josh Pais) while lining up the usual platitudes about only being as old as you feel. Here and there, the actors manage some real acting, illuminating the melancholy inherent to the original and deliberately marginalized here, lest anyone accidentally think about death while watching a movie about septuagenarians planning one last hurrah. Maybe seeing these aging headliners talk about their age carries an automatic power. Or is that just grading on the Last Vegas curve again?


Going in Style (United States, 2017)

Just call it Grumpy Old Crooks. This quasi-remake of a 1979 caper film (which starred George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg) makes wholesale changes to the structure of its forebear – unfortunately few of them are for the better. An inconsequential but engaging piece of fluff has been turned into a misfire that somehow manages to misuse the talents of its three Oscar winning stars, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin. Although Going in Style’s heist represents a high point and gets props for being suitably clever, it’s swamped by bad melodrama and lame comedy.

The filmmakers aren’t really selling this movie for its story, however – they’re banking on the reputations and charisma of the three stars to pull in audiences that don’t often venture out to multiplexes. As such, Going in Style may likely be a bigger draw on home video. The decision to cast an 83-year old (Caine), an 82-year old (Arkin), and a 79-year old (Freeman) is not playing to the typical theater-going demographic. Throw in Christopher Lloyd (age 78) and Ann-Margret (age 76) and it’s clear director Zach Braff isn’t going for the teenage crowd despite the soft PG-13 rating (the content is borderline PG).

One of the problems with Going in Style is that it takes forever to get going, and when it does, there’s not much style in evidence. The setup is interminable. Half the movie is devoted to introducing the characters, establishing their relationships, and making sure the audience is aware that these are good guys not criminals. They have been screwed over by the system, robbed of their pensions by greedy banks and corrupt corporations, and forgotten by a system that’s supposed to protect them. In the original Going in Style, the main characters were a bunch of aging retirees who just decided to pull a caper. Here, with the weight of so much social wrongdoing and desperation weighing things down, it’s not nearly as much fun. And God forbid the characters (or the script) have even the slightest edge. Theodore Melfi’s screenplay works overtime to make sure that no one could view the three criminals as anything other than burnished heroes.

Another big change from the 1979 film is that certain bittersweet elements have been elided, ensuring that the narrative is as bland and vanilla as imaginable. Director Zach Braff believes that the audience doesn’t want anything even a little challenging. So he makes sure the comedy is tasteful and restrained, the drama is tasteful and restrained, and the characters are tasteful and restrained. It would be a stretch (although not much of one) to call Going in Style “wholesome” but it’s dull and badly in need of an injection of energy.

Joe (Caine), Willie (Freeman), and Albert (Arkin) are three former co-workers and friends. Now retired, they live off modest pensions and spend their free time hanging out. Joe lives with his daughter and granddaughter and Willie and Albert share a house across the street. Things start going bad when Joe learns that the adjustable rate on his mortgage has adjusted and he can no longer pay the monthly bills. The bank is unsympathetic. Then the three men’s previous employer is bought and their pensions are eliminated. Faced with mounting bills and no way to pay them, they decide on an unconventional solution: rob a bank.

Once the crime arrives (nearly an hour into the 96-minute running length), things perk up. The segment in which Joe, Willie, and Albert construct their alibis represents a small bit of cleverness in an otherwise unremarkable wasteland. The intricate choreography of their day, which doesn’t become apparent until after the fact, is the kind of thing that viewers of caper films appreciate and, at least in this aspect, Going in Style doesn’t disappoint. In trying to connect this movie with Ocean’s 11 (the original not the remake), Braff and company stack the deck. During the robbery, the trio wears Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. masks.

It’s a cliché to say that Caine, Freeman, and Arkin are on hand to pick up paychecks but it’s true. These roles could have been filled by no-name mediocre actors except then it wouldn’t have gotten financing or distribution. It’s a boondoggle for the actors – a chance to hang out and do something that requires little exertion. Learn the lines, have fun with each other, and go home at the end of the shoot with a nice little bump to the bank account.

Going in Style is just as much a demographic-oriented product as any superhero or robot sci-fi movie. It’s all about marketing with little concern for whether the core film is any good. This is at best made-for-TV quality with stars too big to allow it to go directly where it belongs.

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