Saturday, February 23, 2013

Stand Up Guys

Alternate Title:  Once More Unto the Diner

One sentence synopsis:   Two old friends are re-united for one last night on the town after one is released from his 28-year prison term.

Things Havoc liked: Al Pacino is a great actor, but it does not follow that every performance he's ever given was a great one. He has a well-deserved reputation for chewing scenery in every role since 1980, with results that vary between hilarious (Devil's Advocate), awesome (Heat), and completely stupid (The Recruit). Christopher Walken, meanwhile... well... is Christopher Walken. Descriptions seem inadequate to describe either his career or acting style, but suffice to say that Walken is not famous for the restrained, understated nature of his performances. And so we come to Stand Up Guys, a movie that pairs the two of them together and sets them loose on an unstated rust-belt town for one more night of wacky antics and fun.

Gene Siskel used to ask, whenever he was uncertain about a movie's quality, if the film was more interesting than a documentary about the same actors having lunch. This movie effectively is a documentary about these actors having lunch. And dinner. And breakfast. Pacino plays Val, a convicted gangster who has finally gotten out of prison after 28 years, while Walken is "Doc", his best friend and fellow retired gangster, who is under orders from a local crime boss (played by Mark Margolis) to kill him. Lest this sound like a spoiler, the movie itself dispenses with the pretense early on, allowing us to simply watch the antics of these two old men as they live out what they know will, for at least one of them, be their last day. Pacino, playing a man who knows, and even seems at peace with what is to happen to him, comes off the best. Tamping down his tendency to overact, his character seems more or less like a man who recognizes that he's come to the point where there's no reason to fight for his life. He initiates everything the characters do, be it stealing cars, rescuing an old friend (Alan Arkin) from a retirement home, visiting brothels, doing drugs, or dancing with women at a bar, all while Walken employs his usual deadpan (for once) to actual dramatic effect, letting small hints of the conflict inside leak out as he tries to decide when and how and whether or not he can do what he is under orders to do. It may not be the most groundbreaking material in the world, but Walken and Pacino can not only play characters like this in their sleep, and manage to get across a great deal with an uncharacteristically minimalist pair of performances.

Things Havoc disliked: The film is a series of vignettes, as the characters go to hospitals, brothels, diners, and drug dens, sometimes repeatedly, and have conversations or encounters there before going on to the next one. As narrative structures go, I've seen worse, but unfortunately not everything that the characters do really seems to amount to anything. Repeated visits to the brothel, for instance, seem to be included in the movie only for the purposes of an extended Viagra gag, or to show that Alan Arkin's character is still virile, despite his age, while an ongoing subplot involving Julianna Margulies serves no purpose at all, mostly because Margulies' performance is wooden and stilted, particularly given who she's acting next to. A sequence with a stolen car that turns out to have someone locked in the trunk is interesting enough on its own merits, but once more, does not seem connected at all to the greater story, insofar as you can even speak of one.

Final thoughts:    If it sounds like I'm struggling for things good or bad to say here, there's a reason. Stand Up Guys is ultimately a movie that isn't about a plot or story, it's a concept that was brought to film because of the inherent appeal of putting actors like Christopher Walken and Al Pacino together, regardless of the circumstances necessary to do so. That's not to say the movie has no qualities beyond the cast, the last third or so in particular is reasonably strong, but there's just not much to the film that excites the mind beyond seeing these great actors acting.

My mother, with whom I saw this film, posited that as the baby boomers and their movie icons age into retirement, we will see more films like this, paeans to the giants of that period, with whom the boomers have grown old. Last week's offering was of a similar theme, after all. Being a cinephile myself, and appreciative of these actors, I can't say I mind this trend overmuch, but if it's not too much to ask of the filmmakers in question, the next time they wish to produce a love letter to an aging acting great, could they perhaps include a movie as well?

Final Score:  6/10

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