Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin walk into a bar…
Stand Up Guys tries to persuade you into thinking it’s a tale of three ex-con men looking to carry out one last assignment just for kicks. What is feels like is a film in which three aging actors wanted to work together on screen, regardless of a pedestrian script that is leagues beneath their collective talent levels. Old guys doing funny old guy things worked well for comedic actors such as Walter Mathau and Jack Lemon in the past- not so much for these guys.
What we’re really dealing with here is a relationship between two old friends, Val (Pacino) and Doc (Walken). Val has spent the past 28 years in prison for the accidental murder of the son of a local crime boss, Claphands (Mark Margolis). Now that Val has been released, Doc has been ordered by Claphands to enact revenge for his son’s death by killing Val.
Doc and Val spend the entire day together, dining out and visiting a house of ill repute. You know, things you’d want to do after 28 years in the joint. Throughout the day’s interactions it becomes clear that Doc is at odds with his assignment. Val is his best friend- his long time partner in crime- and casting that aside in the name of someone else’s revenge won’t come lightly to him. Val eventually figures out the burden that is weighing on Doc. His validation to Doc on what he is required to do is one of the more honest and meaningful points in the film.
The film is mostly Pacino’s vehicle to drive, with Walken along for the ride. Pacino hams it up to the best of his ability, but we are often reminded that he is best in dramatic roles and probably doesn’t need to give in to his urge to confront his inner comedian any time soon. As for Walken, this script rarely allows him to be…well…Walken. He seems to sleepwalk through most of the film before being allowed to unleash the more familiar Walken mannerisms we’ve come to love.
When the cheesy comedy bits are set aside to allow for more serious points in the narrative to play out, Stand Up Guys works on a much better level. I wanted more honest conversation between these characters and less Viagra jokes, which felt forced and unnecessary. Val takes too many Viagra and ends up in the hospital to deal with his still erect member. Pacino pup tenting an erection is not funny. Is this Superbad? The only reason we end up here is so we can introduce Nina (Julianne Margulies), the daughter of Hirsch (Arkin). Seeing Hirsch’s daughter reminds them that they should go break him out of the nursing home to have one last night of fun before Doc has to dispatch Val to the great beyond.
Arkin is wasted in this film. His presence is to serve up some forced comedic moments, but since most of his scenes consist of exactly the same circumstances that we saw Val deal with in the first act, it’s all very repetitive. Prior to Hirsch’s entry into the film and again after he leaves is the route Stand Up Guys should have taken all along. This should have been simply about the relationship between Doc and Val. When Arkin is on screen, that relationship takes a back seat for far too long and ultimately cheapens the climactic moments in the film. None of this is Arkin’s fault mind you. He is always an engaging presence on screen, but he is burdened by the same limitations in the script that plague the entire film.
These guys were top notch con men back in their heyday, but none of that is really ever explored in the film. Their reunion would have been better served tackling the con man approach instead of the light hearted, old guy buddy romp we ultimately end up with. It seems obvious to me that the con should have been to convince Claphands that Doc completed his task, but that’s nowhere near how this all plays out.
Director Fisher Stevens and writer Noah Haidle do not have lengthy resumes to their credit, and it shows why here. To be handed three legendary talents such as this and to give them such a lackadaisical effort is unfortunate. Not every part of Stand Up Guys is terrible, but these film makers were clearly out of their depth.
In the end, Stand Up Guys isn’t exactly sure of itself. Does it want to be taken seriously or does it want to make fart noises at the kids table? This type of story really can’t have it both ways. Even with the meandering plot, Pacino, Walken and Arkin all have some decent moments on screen although many of them are lost in the overabundance of sloppy narrative and college humor. These old dogs still have some bark in them, but they’re hungry for some new tricks. Stand Up Guys is more like getting smacked in the nose with a rolled up newspaper.
Stand Up Guys is out now in US cinemas.
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