'Stand Up Guys' Falls Terminally Flat
Intended as a victory lap for three great stars of advancing age, Stand Up Guys is another entry in the "old folks doing stuff" subgenre, which offers comic affirmation that life is not strictly for the young.
This is the subgenre that had a retirement-home population necking like teenagers in Cocoon, Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman jumping out of an airplane in The Bucket List, and ancient astronauts repairing an old Soviet satellite in Space Cowboys. These films offer the cheering fantasy of revitalization, plus the comedy of veteran actors -- some marquee attractions in their day -- not acting their age.
Yet that fantasy curdles badly in Stand Up Guys, in large part because the funny business isn't as innocuous as retirees cutting a rug. The lovable old-timers here, played by Al Pacino and Christopher Walken, are contract killers, and their one-crazy-night misadventures detour into thieving, maiming, murder and no fewer than three trips to the local brothel. (Leading to no fewer than three Viagra jokes, too, which is three above the legal limit.)
It would take a deft touch to frame their transgressions as an essentially harmless final go-around for a couple of old professionals. But actor-turned-director Fisher Stevens gravely misjudges the tone -- when he isn't trying to get too cute about everything, he slathers his characters in unearned sentimentality.
The workable premise has Val (Pacino) getting out of prison after serving 28 years for accidentally killing the boss's son. Though Val has taken the time without complaint, the boss (played by Mark Margolis, best known as the fearsome Tio Salamanca on Breaking Bad) wants him dead within 24 hours of his release.
For this task, he hires Val's best buddy and former partner in crime, Doc (Walken), who has the decency to show his friend a last night on the town before pulling the trigger. After a nice breakfast and a couple of trips to the bawdy house, Val and Doc steal a sleek Dodge Challenger and pick up their former getaway driver, Hirsch (Alan Arkin), to peel off to wherever the evening takes them.
Some of the jokes in Stand Up Guys are barely jokes -- there's a whole sequence devoted to the supposed irony of the mild-mannered Hirsch's talent for pleasuring two young prostitutes at once -- and others are weirdly distasteful. One episode has the trio discovering a naked woman (Vanessa Ferlito) in the trunk of the car, who has obviously been sexually assaulted, and all the film can think to do is have Val and Doc knock around the perpetrators as the woman follows up with a baseball bat. It's all treated with a smug lightness that plays entirely at odds with what's happening onscreen. A pair of career contract killers would be capable of such dirty business, but Fisher and his screenwriter, Noah Haidle, refuse to treat it with any gravity.
At the same time, Stand Up Guys gets awfully sticky as dusk turns to dawn and Val's time grows short. Stevens wants to honor the living legends who have miraculously agreed to appear in his movie, but after spending a full hour treating their characters like cartoons, the about-face into heartfelt slop lacks the necessary gravitas.
Not that these old pros don't give it their best: Walken, in particular, dials back his natural flamboyance to play Doc as a weary, lonely soul searching for some tiny sliver of redemption. The movie isn't worthy of him.
More on Movies
Art Review | May 19, 2013
Don't miss the SFAI class of 2013 and their year-end MFA exhibition at the strange and wonderful Old Mint building. By Sarah Hotchkiss
Theater Review | May 18, 2013
One Helen of Troy was enough trouble for the ancient world. What happens when you get five of them in the same room? By Sam Hurwitt
NPR Film | May 17, 2013
The 12th film based on Gene Roddenberry's '60s sci-fi TV show is the second to star a new group of actors as Kirk, Spock and their crew. J.J. Abrams returns as director, and Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch plays the memorable villain. By David Edelstein
NPR Film | May 17, 2013
A director's film memoir of her theatrical family is transformed by surprising discoveries about her parents' past -- and her own heritage. Sarah Polley's film becomes a superb meditation on how we dramatize memory. (Recommended) By Bob Mondello
The Do List | May 16, 2013
Cy Musiker and David Wiegand scout the Bay Area for things to do this coming weekend and turn up orange peels, music on a mountain, and much more!
We've already met Jesse and Celine, twice. In the 1995 film Before Sunset, they had a romantic encounter in Vienna. Nine years later, they found each other in Paris. In a third film, their relationship has progressed another nine years. The romance hasn't left, says director Richard Linklater, it's simply changed.
NPR's Bob Mondello says J.J. Abrams' latest Star Trek film knows how to make the sparks and feelings fly, but doesn't bother making the sparks and feeling matter very much.
The amazing tale of two sisters from a poor neighborhood — who play tennis unlike anyone before them and each reach No. 1 in the world — is one we're not likely to see again.
Playing the famous half-Vulcan requires a little meditative depth and a lot of brow-shaving. Heroes villain Zachary Quinto plays Spock in the reboot of the Star Trek franchise, with the blessing of original Spock Leonard Nimoy. Quinto tells NPR about befriending Nimoy, shaping eyebrows and more.
Also on KQED.org this week ...
We Need You!
Volunteer during our current on-air radio fundraising drive. It's a great way to support KQED Radio with your time. You can really make a difference!
Enter the New "ImageMakers" Screening Room
Enjoy films from present and past seasons of KQED's short independent film series, divided into Animation, Comedy, Drama, and Suspense.